Legal Dictionary


Definition of blackmail


    Black + mail a piece of money.


blackmail (uncountable)

  1. (archaic): A certain rate of money, corn, cattle, or other thing, anciently paid, in the north of England and south of Scotland, to certain men who were allied to robbers, or moss troopers, to be by them protected from pillage.
  2. Payment of money exacted by means of intimidation; also, extortion of money from a person by threats of public accusation, exposure, or censure.
  3. (English Law): Black rent, or rent paid in corn, flesh, or the lowest coin, a opposed to white rent", which paid in silver. To levy blackmail, to extort money by threats, as of injury to one's reputation.

Further reading

Blackmail is the crime of threatening to reveal substantially true information about a person to the public, a family member, or associates unless a demand made upon the victim is met. This information is usually of an embarrassing, socially damaging, and/or criminally-incriminating nature. As the information is substantially true, the act of revealing the information may not be criminal in its own right nor amount to a civil law defamation; the crime is making demands in exchange for withholding it. English Law creates a much broader definition of blackmail, covering any unwarranted demands with menaces, whether involving revealing information or not.

Blackmail is similar to extortion. The difference is that extortion involves an underlying, independent criminal act, while blackmail does not.

The word is variously derived from the word for tribute (in modern terms, protection racket) paid by English and Scottish border dwellers to Border Reivers in return for immunity from raids and other harassment. This tribute was paid in goods or labour (reditus nigri, or "blackmail"): the opposite is blanche firmes or reditus albi, or "white rent" (denoting payment by silver). Alternatively Mckay derives it from two Scottish Gaelic words blathaich pronounced (the th silent) bld-aich (to protect} and mal (tribute, payment). He notes the practice was common in the Highlands of Scotland as well as the Borders.

English law

Under section21(1) of the Theft Act 1968 of English law, a person commits the offence:

    if, with a view to gain for himself or another or with intent to cause loss to another, he makes any unwarranted demand with menaces; and for this purpose a demand with menaces is unwarranted unless the person making it does so in the belief:

    (a) that he has reasonable grounds for making the demand; and
    (b) that the use of the menaces is a proper means of reinforcing the demand.

The Act uses the word "menaces" which is considered wider in scope than "threat" and involves a warning of any consequences known to be considered unpleasant by the intended victim. This covers the spectrum from actual or threatened violence to the victim or others, through damage to property, to the disclosure of information.

Pretexts for blackmail have included the threat to reveal adultery or criminal acts. But whatever the nature of the menace, it must be direct. Any vague threat to cause "something bad" to happen to some other person, except when certain demands are met, are not applicable under the law.

It is important to note that if the blackmailer did the act (i.e. told the victim's wife that he had committed adultery), it would be perfectly legal. It is only by demanding money not to do the act, that the crime is committed. This is true even if the husband would rather pay the money than have the wife know of the adultery, i.e. does not object to the menace.


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


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