Where does the word blackmail come from?

Kieran McGovern
The English Language: FAQ
5 min readAug 14


Blackmail (1929) The first British talkie

The original meaning of the word blackmail was to describe a prototype protection racket. On the Scottish side of Hadrian’s wall Scottish lords would offer those without the protection of castles and chainmail a security against marauding Sassenachs.

At one level this was a service welcomed by homesteaders in the Borders. Given that Scottish lords were not above a bit of pillaging themselves, however, there was a subtext. This ran along the lines of nice little tenant farm you have here. Would be a shame if those English bastards were to come along and burn down your cottage.

Blackmail and crime

By the 19th century the connection between blackmail and criminal enterprise was firmly established, but more focussed around protecting social reputation, rather than personal or property security. In 1840 the word entered the Oxford English Dictionary with the definition, 'payment extorted by intimidation or pressure'.

In fiction blackmail became a useful tool for providing both suspense and motivation. Dickens uses it repeatedly. In A Tale of Two Cities, for example, Carton blackmails Barsad, threatening to reveal him as a spy of the French government. Secrets and lies permeate Bleak House and Martin Chuzzlewit while fear of social exposure is something that haunts both David Copperfield and Pip.

Little Dorrit has the archetypal modern blackmailer in the form of Rigaud. Charming, utterly ruthless and cynical, Rigaud is strongly suspected of murdering his wife but has used his wiles to gain an acquittal. Now attempts to blackmail Mrs.Clennam with the secret he knows about her family. He also has the effrontery to offer a rationale for his behaviour:

Stay, madame! Let us see,’ returned the Swiss, argumentatively turning his cigar between his lips. ‘It may have been his unfortunate destiny. He may have been the child of circumstances. It is always possible that he had, and has, good in him if one did but know how to find it out. Philosophical philanthropy teaches — ’

This does not convince his author, whose robust view is expressed by Rigaud’s landlady: there are people who have no human heart, and who must be crushed like savage beasts and cleared out of the way. From this perspective Rigaud gets his just deserts when a building collapses on him


Robert Lous Stevenson also places blackmail at the heart of his 'shilling shockers'. In 'The Body Snatcher' an eminent surgeon is haunted by his involvement events clearly based on the notorious Burke and Hare case.

There is an explicit blackmail reference in the opening chapter of The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1886). Mr Enfield muses on why the ultra respectable Doctor Jekyll would offer hospitality to the loathsome ‘Satan’, Mr Hyde

Blackmail, I suppose; an honest man paying through the nose for some of the capers of his youth. Black Mail House is what I call the place with the door

In fact, Mr Enfield’s summary justice for Mr Hyde is itself a textbook case of ‘payment extorted by intimidation or pressure’:

We told the man we could and would make such a scandal out of this as should make his name stink from one end of London to the other. If he had any friends or any credit, we undertook that he should lose them.

Such is the power of this threat to his reputation that Mr Hyde immediately succumbs to what is effectively a shakedown.

If you choose to make capital out of this accident,’ said he, ‘I am naturally helpless. No gentleman but wishes to avoid a scene,’ says he. ‘Name your figure.’ Well, we screwed him up to a hundred pounds for the child’s family.

Reputation is also the focus of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Though homosexual activity is not explicitly labelled as such, critics immediately assumed this ‘degeneracy’ was central to Dorian’s corruption. It is implicitly linked to the murder of Basil and the blackmail of Campbell, who has his own unnamed secret.


Wilde plays with gothic conventions (the dark secret in the attic). In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Krogstad’s blackmailing of Nora ultimately backfires. Once she rejects social convention, it loses its power over her. In real life, this was still a dangerous thesis, as the trials of Oscar Wilde demonstrated

In more orthodox crime fiction, blackmail has been used more to provide satisfying plots than for psychological exploration. Much of the Sherlock Holmes casebook involved the theme ins some form, often as a useful device for introducing exotic narrative set-ups.

Why does the King of Bohemia call on Holmes? Because a private detective/investigator offers the discretion needed to resolve tricky problems away from the public eye. As Holmes puts it:

“Your Majesty, as I understand, became entangled with this young person, wrote her some compromising letters, and is now desirous of getting those letters back.”

Not a gig for Scotland Yard, then. Similarly, Hercules Poirot, Phillip Marlow and their many imitators appear to offer to a clean-up service for messy situations. In some cases, the supposed blackmail victim is themselves part of the nefarious machinations. By the mid 20th Century, the ‘savage beasts’ explanation was out of vogue and crude psycho-analysis was in (see Norman Bates etc).


Early film makers quickly developed short cuts to signal what would become a staple feature of the thriller - and other crime-associated genres. Further innovations were introduced with the advent of sound.

Alfred Hitchcock's breakthrough thriller Blackmail (1929) was initially scheduled to be silent, and the Czech actress Anny Ondra was cast in the role of the unworldly young English woman Alice White. When dialogue scenes were rapidly created Ondra’s lines were spoken off camera by another actress, Joan Barry.

Astonishingly this early ‘director’s cut’ created what the contemporary film magazine described as “perhaps the most intelligent mixture of sound and silence we have yet seen.”

Sound gave Hitchcock new tools to depict blackmail but ended many careers, including that of Anny Ondra

Hitchcock’s primary interest was in creating suspense, often from the point of view of the victim. He played with ideas of guilt, with the otherwise virtuous forced into violent behaviour by circumstance. Here a rape victim kills in self-defence (morally at least) and then is blackmailed.

In the post war era, blackmail was increasingly used as plot device to explore social taboos. Dirk Bogarde starred in two psychological dramas about about 'forbidden love. In Blackmailed (1951) an extra-marital affair was the source of the scandal. A decade later Victim explored the legally perilous position of a gay men in Britain before 1967.


Theories about the etymology of the blackmail are speculative. That it derives from two Scottish Gaelic words blathaich - to protect; and mal - tribute or payment seems plausible.



Kieran McGovern
The English Language: FAQ

Author. Write here about growing up in an Irish family in west London. Plus Beatles FAQ & Brief Lives: fun stories about writers, musicians , songs etc