Word origins in black and white


It was corruption, not the post office, that gave us the word "blackmail." According to "Webster's Word Histories," life was unfair for Scottish farmers in the 17th-century Highlands. Not only did they struggle to cultivate the soil, but they also had to deal with corrupt land chiefs who forced them to pay for "protection" of their property - extortion, in other words. "Mail" is a Scottish word for "rent." If the farmers paid rent in the form of silver, it was called "whitemail." If they paid in crops, labor, or livestock, it was blackmail.

The term blackmail only acquired a bad name for itself when greedy landlords forced cashless tenants to pay more in goods than they would have in silver. By 1601, "blackmail" spread to England where it became a tax as well. Eventually, the term came to mean anything extorted, money or favors.


This term refers to a burdensome possession, especially a gift that one cannot get rid of. Many centuries ago in Siam, now Thailand, a white or albino elephant was so rare that each one born was automatically the property of the king, and none was permitted to work. If the king took a dislike to a courtier, His Majesty simply gave him a white elephant and waited for time and the enormous appetite of the beast to eat its hapless victim out of house and home.

Because the elephant was sacred and, therefore, could never be disposed of, a recipient of this holy gift could never be unburdened. By the 19th century the term "white elephant" was transferred to any unwanted items.

SOURCES: Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, by William and Mary Morris; 'Why You Say It,' by Webb Garrison; 'Loose Cannons and Red Herrings,' by Robert Claiborne; Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, by Robert Hendrickson;

A Dictionary of True Etymologies, by A. Room; The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, by C.T. Onions.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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