[ blak-meyl ]
/ ˈblækˌmeɪl /
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See synonyms for: blackmail / blackmailer on Thesaurus.com

Definition of blackmail

any payment extorted by intimidation, as by threats of injurious revelations or accusations.
the extortion of such payment: He confessed rather than suffer the dishonor of blackmail.
a tribute formerly exacted in the north of England and in Scotland by freebooting chiefs for protection from pillage.
verb (used with object)
to extort money from (a person) by the use of threats.
to force or coerce into a particular action, statement, etc.: The strikers claimed they were blackmailed into signing the new contract.
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Origin of blackmail

First recorded in 1545–55; black + mail3


blackmailer, noun
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What does blackmail mean?

Blackmail is the act of attempting to force someone to do something or give up something valuable by threatening negative consequences if they don’t, especially revealing negative information about them.

Blackmail can also be used as a verb meaning to do such a thing.

Less commonly, blackmail can refer specifically to a payment made due to threats or coercion.

Perhaps the most common blackmail scenario is forcing someone to pay money in order to avoid having a negative secret revealed about them.

Blackmail is a serious crime, but sometimes the word is applied to less serious situations. For example, making your sibling do your chores so you don’t tattle on them to your parents for something they did is definitely blackmail.

Example: My life is an open book, so you have nothing to blackmail me with—everyone already knows all my secrets!

Where does blackmail come from?

The first records of blackmail come from the 1500s. Black is used in the sense of “bad” or “evil.” Mail doesn’t refer to the letters that we send through the post office but instead to another sense of the word meaning “payment” or “tax,” from the Old English māl, meaning “agreement.” In the original sense of blackmail, it was a forced agreement. In the 1500s, Scottish chieftains engaged in a protection racket in which they’d force farmers in Scotland and northern England to pay for protection against plunder. (Nowadays, we’d probably call this kind of scheme extortion.) It wasn’t until a few hundred years later that blackmail came to be used in its current, more general sense.

Most commonly, blackmail refers to the act of threatening to reveal a secret that will ruin someone’s reputation unless they pay or submit to other demands. It’s especially associated with public figures such as politicians and celebrities, who are often the target of such blackmail attempts. But blackmail can happen in different ways and on different scales. Emotional blackmail refers to actions like withholding affection to get something desired. Nuclear blackmail refers to a nation threatening to use its nuclear weapons in order to influence the actions of another country.

What’s the difference between blackmail and extortion?

The two words can be used interchangeably. Extortion, though, is often used more broadly, and often refers to coercion through threats of violence or the abuse of one’s authority.

Did you know ... ?

What are some other forms related to blackmail?

  • blackmailer (noun)

What are some synonyms for blackmail?

What are some words that share a root or word element with blackmail



What are some words that often get used in discussing blackmail?


How is blackmail used in real life?

Blackmail is often used to refer to a crime, especially one targeting politicians or celebrities. But it can be used in less serious contexts as well.



Try using blackmail!

True or False? 

Blackmail always involves forcing someone to pay money to prevent a secret about them from being revealed.

How to use blackmail in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for blackmail

/ (ˈblækˌmeɪl) /

the act of attempting to obtain money by intimidation, as by threats to disclose discreditable information
the exertion of pressure or threats, esp unfairly, in an attempt to influence someone's actions
verb (tr)
to exact or attempt to exact (money or anything of value) from (a person) by threats or intimidation; extort
to attempt to influence the actions of (a person), esp by unfair pressure or threats

Derived forms of blackmail

blackmailer, noun

Word Origin for blackmail

C16: see black, mail ³
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012