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Blackmail, hot seat, by hook or by crook, in hot water

Created date

September 24th, 2015


We’ve all heard the term "blackmail," which is the act of extorting money or privilege from someone by threatening to go public with sensitive information. But strangely, it has nothing at all to do with mail. 

In fact, the term’s use of the word “mail” is actually a corruption of the Scottish word “male,” which means rent. Scottish tenants typically paid their rent in silver coins known as “white male,” however, the term changed when highland chieftains began threatening to sack farms and villages unless paid to stay away. The Scotts called this “black male.” 

Save for a small change in the spelling, the word remains today.

“She was arrested for blackmail after threatening the senator with compromising letters.”

Hot seat

If you’re in the hot seat, chances are you’re being questioned for a crime. The term was a favorite for screenwriters of 1940s gangster pictures and, to this day, refers to the chair that a suspect sits in when he or she is interrogated by the police. 

But the origin of the term is even more frightening. In the Middle Ages, before there were laws governing what the ruling authorities could do to a person, dungeons and prison towers were equipped with all manner of implements that proved effective means of extracting information. 

One such method was a chair lined with iron spikes. If that wasn’t bad enough, hot coals could be placed under this chair to heat these spikes. It was literally a hot seat. 

Maybe now that twenty-first-century interrogation room doesn’t sound so bad.

“The detectives knew he would fold under questioning. They only had him in the hot seat for 15 minutes when, suddenly, he agreed to talk.”

By hook or by crook

Our hats are off to you if you can guess this one. And no, it has nothing to do with Peter Pan or Captain Hook. In fact, the phrase “by hook or by crook,” which essentially means one way or another, actually comes from a medieval English law.

Medieval serfs, though at the bottom of the human chain of command in England, still had a legal right to stay warm in the winter. But the king didn’t want them to get too much wood for fires, just enough to not freeze. 

To ensure that they wouldn’t get greedy over lumber, a law regulated the actual means by which they could obtain the wood. They couldn’t use an axe, but they could use either a hook-shaped blade or a shepherd’s crook for pulling down small limbs and branches. 

So by hook or by crook, they were entitled to fuel for a fire. Though not quite so literally, the phrase still survives today.

“I don’t care if I have to take a plane or a train to get there on time. I’m going to get there by hook or by crook.”

In hot water

“In hot water” is almost universally understood to mean that you are in big trouble. Not so surprisingly, this phrase is yet another conscript from the annals of medieval justice. 

Indeed, one of the many ways that the king’s men might determine a person’s guilt was to simply stick one of his limbs in a cauldron of boiling water. If in three days, his horrible burns were starting to heal, he was innocent. If the burns hadn’t begun to heal, he was guilty. Case closed.

Either way, if you were in hot water, you were in trouble.

“I got a speeding ticket on the way home from work. I’m going to be in hot water with my wife.”