Imagine, completely hypothetically, that the President of Russia had information he could use to blackmail the President of the United States. Crazy, I know, but reading about this possibility recently made me think about the word blackmail.
When you look at it, it’s obviously made up of the two words black and mail. Before I looked up the origin of the word, I thought about what it might mean. Black obviously means bad or evil in this context. And mail? Well, mail. As in post, letters.
Surely it refers to having documents or letters which could incriminate or embarrass them, whose publication you could threaten them with. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
It does, but it’s wrong.
Not completely though. I was right about the black part. Mail in this case though, actually comes from the Middle English male, meaning rent or tribute (which actually shares an origin with the word meeting). Blackmail referred to, basically, protection money, paid to criminals as protection against pillage. This use of mail can also be seen in the now-obsolete silver mail (rent), and the equally obsolete but fantastic buttock-mail (fine imposed for fornication).
So I was wrong with my theory, but now I’ve learned about buttock-mail, so things aren’t so bad.