The Difference Between Extortion and Blackmail

By Maeve Maddox

Two legal terms similar in meaning are extortion and blackmail. Both involve the practice of getting money from victims with threats.

Extortion comes from Latin extortionem, “a twisting out.” The crime involves obtaining something, usually money, from a person by force or wrongful use of authority or power.

A former city of Miami police officer charged with extortion is accused of writing a false police report and protecting purportedly stolen property in exchange for payments, authorities said.

The term blackmail originated in reference to the “protection money” demanded by clan chieftains from Scottish farmers in exchange for leaving them alone. The word has always conjured up the image in my mind of a black envelope containing a threat and a demand for money. In fact, the “mail” part of blackmail derives from Middle English male, “rent, tribute.” Old English mal meant “lawsuit, terms, bargaining, agreement.” The “black” of blackmail refers to association of the color black with evil.

In modern usage blackmail differs from extortion in that the money or other valuable object or act is not extorted by threat of direct bodily harm, but by the threat of revealing something presumed to be injurious to the victim.

A CBS News producer who blackmailed David Letterman for $2 million [about extra-marital affairs] is going away for six months

This difference in meaning between blackmail and extortion obtains in American English, but in cruising the web to prepare this post, I discovered evidence that the original use of blackmail to mean extortion by threat of physical harm may still be current in British English:

Blackmailer threatened to nail victim’s hand to floor: A BLOCK paver who threatened to nail a man’s hand to the floor if he did not get the £1,000 owed to him has been jailed for three years.

A BLACKMAILER tried to extort £40,000 from a businessman by threatening to kill him and dismember his body.

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11 Responses to “The Difference Between Extortion and Blackmail”

  • Peter

    In modern usage blackmail differs from extortion in that the money or other valuable object or act is not extorted by threat of direct bodily harm, but by the threat of revealing something presumed to be injurious to the victim.

    Yah. Blackmail is surely the most insane “crime” on the books: if you tell David Letterman that you’ll tell the newspapers about his affair unless he pays you, that’s blackmail, and you’re a criminal. But if you tell the newspapers about the affair without offering Letterman the chance to stop you, that’s perfectly fine (sleazy, maybe, but legal). You can even get paid by the papers for the story! If people can legally be paid to release information but are jailed if they offer to accept payment not to release said information, celebrities and the like (about whom magazines and newspapers would buy information) are put in a worse position.

  • Valerie

    Hi
    Interestingly, the two examples of ‘blackmail’ in the sense of ‘extortion’ that you give are agent nouns – blackmailer. What would the agent noun for extortion be?

  • Maeve

    Valerie,
    That would be “extortioner.”

  • Brecon

    Speaking as a Brit and former newspaper writer, I’d say that the words blackmail and extortion are generally given the same meaning over here. However, ‘blackmailer’ comes more readily to the mind of someone writing quickly than ‘extortioner.’

    Having said that the wonderfully-named Celebitchy blog (US) headlined its David Letterman blackmail story thus: “Letterman extortioner cops a plea, gets 6 months in jail, gag order.”

    Perhaps we need a new word for writers who get in a twist over the two words – “extortionist”?

  • Peter

    Extortionist, surely.

  • Maeve

    Peter,
    The OED gives both:

    extortioner: One who practises or is given to extortion.

    extortionist: One who extorts something from another; an extortioner.

  • Alexandre Piccolo

    The 1968 OLD (Oxford Latin Dictionary) does not give the entry “extortio” (from where the word “extortionem” would come – it has the form of an accusative) – it looked odd to me seeing an English word derived from the accusative form, and that led me to the books. Anyway, there’s a latin verb “extorqueo”, whose past participle form “extortum” could give the root for the English word. Besides, “extortor(-oris)” is the Latin noun for the one who extorts – with the same stem “extort-“.

  • Maeve

    Brecon,
    It’s interesting that your suggestion combines “extortioner” with “contortionist” to give “extortionist.” I theorize that Peter’s preferred form “extortionist” may well have been coined on the pattern of “contortionist.”

    The agent noun “extortioner” dates from the Middle Ages. The variation “extortionist” came along in the 1880s, about 30 years after the first documented use of “contortionist.”

  • Bob

    The mail part comes from the spelling commonly used in Scots. There are a few dozen different phrases that use mail.

    Male was English, or it would be Blackmale today.

    – “The word mail is widely spread in Sc. dial. but known only in Eng. dial. in Nhb., Wm. and n.Yks.”, (DSL)

  • Judge Jack Jones

    Exotortion and Blackmail are identical criminal offences just that in the UK ( BLACKMAIL ) and in the US ( EXTORTION ) .
    A circular piece of bread in the North West ( a barm cake ), in Yorkshire ( a tea cake ), in the North East ( a cob cake ) and the snooty southerners and Oxbridge boys and girls ( a morning roll ) .They are
    the same thing exactly, it just depends where you live as with BLACKMAIL and EXTORTION.

  • David

    Judge Jack Jones,

    “Exotortion and Blackmail are identical criminal offences just that in the UK ( BLACKMAIL ) and in the US ( EXTORTION ) …. it just depends where you live.”

    I’m afraid that’s not true. The words have and have always had different meanings, whether in the UK or the US. The fact that many people don’t know the difference does not mean that the words don’t have different meanings.

    What you said about different types of bread is true, but in no way similar to the case of blackmail and extortion.

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