Every so often, something crops up on HH that if we didn’t provide the receipts for, no one would believe it to be true. And today, that something is buttock-mail.
Ah, the Scots. Don’t you just love them? Seriously, they have all the best words.
So. Buttock-mail. Buttock. Mail. How on earth did that happen?
Well, if you’ve got the HH factbook Word Drops, then you’ll be familiar with this one already. If you haven’t, here’s the tail. Sorry, tale.
Brought in as one of the Poor Law taxes introduced in Scotland from the mid 1500s onwards, buttock-mail was really more of a fine than a tax, which could be imposed by an ecclesiastical court on anyone caught either with a prostitute (AKA a buttock in seventeenth-century slang), or having had sex outside of marriage.
At the time, Scotland’s strict Presbyterian courts were responsible for ensuring the moral behaviour of the people, and this tax—introduced under James VI in 1595—was their attempt to enforce chastity, while simultaneously punishing adulterers and fornicators.
Anyone literally caught in flagrante delicto would ordinarily be punished by being made to sit on a “Stool of Repentance” in their local church, but the payment of buttock-mail commuted this sentence and allowed the offender to avoid public humiliation, and thereby remain anonymous:
What! D’ye think the lads wi’ the kilts will care for yer synods and yer presbyteries, and yer buttock-mail, and yer stool o’ repentance? Vengeance on the black face o’t! Mony an honester woman’s been set upon it than streeks [i.e. lies] doon beside ony Whig in the country!
Sir Walter Scott, Waverley (1814)
But one question here remains. If buttock means “prostitute” in this context, what about mail?
Well, mail in the sense of “post” or “messages” derives from male, an Old English word for a wallet or bag. Mail in the sense of armour, as in chainmail, derives from the French maille, meaning “mesh” (which comes in turn from the Latin word for a spot or blemish, macula, because the gaps between the chainlinks supposedly looked like spots). The mail here, however, is neither of these; but it is the same mail that crops up in blackmail.
This mail derives from another Old English word, mal, meaning “rent,” “financial tribute,” or “payment.” In turn, Old English mal came from an Old Norse word, mál, meaning “speech” or “agreement,” and so it’s likely that the financial connotations of the word perhaps came out of meetings aimed at insuring compensation or arranging deals.
Whatever its origins, Old English mal eventually began to appear in the names of all kinds of different taxes and tributes in feudal Britain, from burrow-mail (paid to the head of a burgh) to grassmail (paid to ensure the right to graze livestock).
Blackmail likewise was originally a payment made to criminals and other shady characters (hence the same depreciative prefix, black–, as still found in expressions like black market) to ensure immunity from pillaging or raiding. And buttock-mail, ultimately, was a payment made to the church in recompense for—er, daring to cavort with a “buttock.”