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Scottish National Dictionary (1700–)

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First published 1941 (SND Vol. II).
This entry has not been updated but may contain minor corrections and revisions.

BLACK MAIL, —MEAL, n. The form black-mail is now in use in St.Eng. to mean any kind of payment extorted by intimidation or pressure. It is also used as a v. with its derivative blackmailer. It appears first in Eng. in 1601 (N.E.D.) in an extract from Act 43 Eliz. xiii, which proves that it was known also in the northern counties of England. The word mail is widely spread in Sc. dial. but known only in Eng. dial. in Nhb., Wm. and n.Yks. Jam. (1808) defines it as “a tax or contribution paid by heritors or tenants, for the security of their property, to those freebooters who were wont to make inroads on estates, destroying the corns, or driving away cattle.” The two quots. below give examples of the use of the variant black meal. [′blɑk′mel, ′blɑk′mil (rare)]Sc. 1771 T. Pennant Tour in Scot. 1769 176:
A contribution called the black meal, was raised by several of these plundering chieftains, over a vast extent of country: whoever payed it had their cattle ensured, but those who dared to refuse were sure to suffer.
Per. 1795 Stat. Acc.1 II. 457:
Obliging the inhabitants to pay them, Black Meal, as it is called, to save their property from being plundered.

[The form meal is due to the fact that meal (corn) is pronounced in Sc. either mail [mel] or meal [mil]. Mail, q.v., in blackmail comes from a Sc. word meaning rent, unconnected with meal (corn). The use of the term black is variously explained as (1) bad morally (as in Black Gate), hence illegal; (2) paid in black cattle and not in white money — i.e. silver. O.Sc. blak-maill and blak-meill (from 1530), a payment enacted or made in return for protection from spoliation or injury; an illegal exaction (D.O.S.T.).]

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"Black Mail n.". Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. Accessed 29 Sep 2023 <>



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