The origin of the term “blackmail” (extortion)

Posted by Neil Shouse | Sep 20, 2016 | 0 Comments

A medieval word, an ancient crime

The word “blackmail” dates back to the 16th century and possibly earlier. As originally used, mail probably referred to rent paid to a landlord. When paid in silver, mail was known as reditus albi or blanche firmes --  in English "white" (silver) mail or rent. Reditus nigri -- "black" mail or rent was, by contrast, rent paid in non-monetary form, such as livestock, grain, or work.

The origin of the “black” in blackmail is somewhat murky. It may derive from the ancient association between the color black and evil deeds. Or it could simply serve as a contrast to white mail – to distinguish rent paid in goods or services from rent paid with cash.

Whatever its origins, by the 16th century, blackmail had come to refer to protection money paid by farmers and other tenants on the English-Scottish border.  The goods or money would be handed over to raiders, known as “border reivers,” who would burn down the property if the blackmail wasn't paid, and sometimes steal livestock or kidnap women and hold them for ransom.

As of the 19th century, however, the word had expanded to mean payment extorted by intimidation or pressure or by unprincipled officials and journalists with the power to help or hurt other. By the end of the century, it had expanded into its current meaning of a payment secured by threats or pressure, in particular, the threat of revealing an embarrassing or disparaging fact.

The Nevada crime of extortion

In Nevada, the crime of blackmail is known as extortion, NRS 205.320. Nevada's extortion law makes it a felony for you to demand anything of value in order not to:

  • accuse someone of a crime,
  • injure a person or property,
  • libel (defame) someone,
  • accuse a person of a deformity or disgrace, or
  • expose a person's secret.

Extortion under NRS 205.320 is a felony. In addition to restitution of whatever has been paid to you, possible penalties for extortion in Nevada can include:

  • 1 - 10 years in prison, and/or
  • up to $10,000 in fines.

(See our related article, What's the difference between extortion and bribery in Nevada?)

The California crime of extortion

In California, the crime of blackmail is known as extortion, California Penal Code 518 PC.

PC 518 makes it illegal to use force or threats to compel someone give you money or other property in order not to:

  • Accuse that person of a crime,
  • Reveal a secret about that person, or
  • Expose that person or a family member to embarrassment or disgrace.

Other acts prohibited under California's extortion law include:

  • using force or threats to compel a public officer to perform an official act, or
  • if you are a public official, acting under color of your official right to compel another person to give you money or other property.

Extortion is usually a felony in California. Punishment for extortion can include:

  • Two (2), three (3) or four (4) years in county jail, and/or
  • Up to a ten thousand dollar ($10,000) fine.

Call us for help...

If you or someone you know has been charged with extortion or blackmail, our caring Colorado criminal defense lawyers / Nevada criminal defense lawyers can help.

We defend clients accused of all types of financial crimes including extortion, bribery and robbery.

By the way – the word “extortion” is even older than word “blackmail.” It comes from Latin ex- "out" + torquēre -- to twist. So extortion means to wrench out, wrest away, or obtain by force. In other words, blackmail.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Court TV, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.


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