When looking up the etymology of the word mail for the clearly distinct senses of:

  • things you use the postal service for; and
  • armour (e.g. chain mail),

I came across a third sense of the word, namely, rent or payment. Etymonline claims an example of this usage is the word blackmail. This third sense seems to be uncommon in modern English, at least to me, although the link to its use in the word blackmail sounds plausible. From Etymonline:

Middle English male "rent, tribute," from Old English mal "lawsuit, terms, bargaining, agreement," from Old Norse mal "speech, agreement;" related to Old English mæðel "meeting, council," mæl "speech," Gothic maþl "meeting place," from Proto-Germanic *mathla-, from PIE *mod- "to meet, assemble"

My question: After Old English, where else is the word mail used in this third sense, and is mail used commonly in this sense anywhere in modern English? I'm looking for some idea of this word's life-cycle, so to speak. Era of common use ('era' in the sense of Elizabethan or modern), reasons for the word's decline in usage, derived words and regional usage are all in scope for this question.

  • 1
    I don't recall ever hearing "mail" used (in the US) in the sense of "rent" or "payment". Merriam-Webster says "chiefly Scottish : bag, wallet", but that sense is not used in the US.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 26, 2015 at 16:10
  • @HotLicks Thanks - following the Scottish reference yielded some dates and other derived words at dictionary.com (search the text for silver mail).
    – Lawrence
    Dec 26, 2015 at 22:22
  • Please answer your question so that Anonymous doesn't keep resurrecting it.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 25, 2016 at 23:06
  • @HotLicks Ok, done.
    – Lawrence
    Jan 25, 2016 at 23:20

2 Answers 2


Following @HotLick's Scottish reference, I found an entry at dictionary.com (search the text for silver mail) that indicates a small group of words related to blackmail, starting from a rather crude reference to a fine (penalty) in the 1530s, going through blackmail in the 1550s with reference to protection rackets against Scottish farmers, then to silver mail in the 1590s. The last seems to be a reference to money rent paid to Scottish landlords.


In my view the explanation of "blackmail"is wrong. There is no third meaning of mail. "Blackmail" is a metaphor. A letter to force someone to pay money is compared to a black letter, so it is black mail or blackmail.

  • Actually, looking for the Scottish reference by @HotLicks, it appears that the word blackmail does have a link to the third sense of mail. I'll add it to the main question as an update.
    – Lawrence
    Dec 26, 2015 at 22:27

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