Word Confusion: Blackmail versus Extortion

Posted December 20, 2013 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

This is a word confusion that’s always confused me, and I decided to delve into it after Kristian Knutsen’s story at The Daily Page about an attorney/journalist, Ann E. Fleischli, extorting a bookstore owner.

The original, or base difference, is the average joe blackmails while a politician extorts. Today, the difference is one of revealing something the victim doesn’t want known (blackmail) versus doing harm to someone (extortion).

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

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Blackmail Extortion
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Merriam-Webster; Daily Writing Tips; Quick & Dirty Tips; Free Advice: Criminal Law

“DeAr mr. WaLT We HⒶVE yOUR mOUSE” by Paul Keller is under the CC BY 2.0 license, via VisualHunt.

Hmmm, the lettering, the messy format, the “message(!)”… Yep, sounds like blackmail to me.

“Cancer is Like a Terminal Extortion” courtesy of Sore Throat, Nausea and Headache.

Part of Grammar:
Noun; Verb, transitive

Plural for noun: blackmail

Third person present verb: blackmails
Past tense or past participle: blackmailed
Gerund or present participle: blackmailing

Plural for noun: extortion
Revealing secrets

Encompasses threats made by private persons to gain anything of value. And generally, a thing of value is broadly defined, including not only money and property, but also sexual favors.

The action, treated as a criminal offense, of demanding money from a person in return for not revealing compromising or injurious information about that person

  • Money demanded in this way
  • The use of threats or the manipulation of someone’s feelings to force them to do something

A tribute formerly exacted in the north of England and in Scotland by freebooting chiefs for protection from pillage

Verb, transitive:
Demand money from a person in return for not revealing compromising or injurious information about that person

  • Force someone to do something by using threats or manipulating their feelings

Blackmail is considered a form of extortion by in some states and by the feds if it crosses state lines.

Doing harm

The narrow definition refers to the unlawful taking by a government official of money or property—either by threats or simply in return for performing some official act (this has been expanded recently to include private individuals)

Unlawful exaction of money, property, or services through intimidation, coercion, or undue exercise of authority, which may include threats of physical harm, criminal prosecution, destruction of property, improper government action, inaction of the testimony, the withholding of testimony in a legal action, or public exposure

The crime of getting money from someone by the use of force or threats

The act or practice of extorting, especially money or other property

[Slang] A gross overcharge

They were acquitted of charges of blackmail.

We do not pay blackmail.

It was extortional blackmail!

Out of fear, she submitted to Jim’s emotional blackmail.

They are trying to blackmail us with hunger.

Verb, transitive:
Trying to blackmail him for $400,000.

The membership felt that they were blackmailed into accepting the changes.

He had blackmailed her into sailing with him.

He was convicted of trying to extort $1 million from a developer.

He was arrested and charged with extortion.

Six dollars for a cup of coffee is just plain extortion.

The spy had set up a drop for the extortion money.

It was flat out extortion when Fleischli put the bookstore owner down.

Noun: blackmailer, blackmailers Adjective: extortionate
Adverb: extortionately
Noun: extortioner, extortionist, nonextortion
Verb: extort, extorts, extorted, extorting
History of the Word:
First known use: 1552
I like Maeve Maddox’s explanation better than Apple Dictionary’s, and I’ve blended the two:

Mid-16th century denoting protection money demanded by clan chieftains from Scottish farmers in exchange for leaving them alone.
From black (and its association of the color black with evil) + obsolete mail (Middle English male from the Old English mal meaning lawsuit, terms, bargaining, agreement) meaning tribute, rent, from the Old Norse mál meaning speech, agreement.

First known use: 14th century

Middle English from the late Latin extortio(n-), which is from the Latin extorquere meaning wrest.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

Roman Zacharij has released his artwork, Oppression and Extortion, 2008, into the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. It depicts the “oppression and extortion of Polish state bureaucrats in the western Ukrainian countryside of the Berezhany district during Polish rule in Berezhany lands (1919-1939). The work is located in the Berezhany City Museum in Berezhany, Ternopil oblast in the western Ukraine.”

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