Blackmail Is Such an Ugly Word

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

"Blackmail is such an ugly word.[1] I prefer 'extortion'. The 'X' makes it sound cool."

Bender Bending Rodriguez, Futurama

This trope dates back to movies in the 1930s (and possibly earlier). A character discovers that she is the target of Blackmail and confronts the blackmailer who, while not denying their actions, would rather call it something prettier like a "comprehensive insurance policy". The line is virtually stock dialogue now; as a trope it is at the very least discredited, since it's only used for laughs (or period flavor) these days.

A subtrope of No Except Yes and Insistent Terminology.

No real life examples, please; tell the police, not us.

Examples of Blackmail Is Such an Ugly Word include:

The Classic Line

Comic Books

  • S.W.O.R.D.: Abigail Brand lets Gyrich know that his attempted coup of her organisation nearly led to Earth's destruction, she has all the evidence needed to prove it, and the only way she'll keep it to herself is if he quits and tells the higher-ups that she has no need of a co-command.

Gyrich: This is blackmail.
Brand: I prefer "squeezing your unexplored hairy planetoids in a vise".

Fan Works

Brian: So... it's blackmail, is it?
Stewie: Blackmail is such an ugly word. How about the word "extortion"?
Brian: Extortion's a good word.
Stewie: But unfortunately completely inaccurate. Extortion is when I just... beat you until you give me what I want!
(Stewie pulls out a baseball bat and starts whacking Brian on the back and shins)
Brian: Damn! Ow! Stop that! Okay, okay, blackmail it is!

    • It is also a shout-out to every show that ever said blackmail was interchangable with extortion—and by this page you can see there are quite the number of them.
  • From Looming Darkness we have Dark Link quoting this almost word for word in chapter 9.


Tony: I was hoping sooner or later I might catch you at something and be able to...
Lesgate: Blackmail me?
Tony: Influence you.

Chief Aloysius: (on the phone with the mayor) Now you know the word for this your Honor: it's called blackmail!


"You followed me here."
"Tut. Followed is such an ugly word. I prefer 'blackmail'."
"But, of course, it means something completely different. So all right, let's say I followed you here."

  • In Lolita, Humbert corrects himself when fantasizing on how he will "blackmail" his wife Charlotte into letting him spend more time with Lolita, saying that "blackmail" is too harsh and suggesting "mauvemail" as a lighter term.
  • Subverted in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged:

Rearden said calmly, "In my youth, this was called blackmail."
Dr. Ferris grinned. "That's what it is, Mr. Rearden. We've entered a much more realistic age."

  • The horse is not yet completely dead: played 100% straight in the 2009 John Grisham book The Associate.
  • Terl of Battlefield Earth has an obsession with finding "leverage" over his opponents that rivals J. Edgar Hoover.
  • In the novel Foundation's Triumph, the "Three Laws"-Compliant robots must use this type of phrasing when they tell human mentallics it may be necessary to seriously harm Hari Seldon to stop what they view as another robot group's interference.

"It may become necessary..."
"To kill?"
"But it is deeply embedded within Hari. To change it may cause him serious harm."
(Beat) The robot said "Regrettable." Then it croaked out "Necessary..." and left the room.

"That's blackmail," Kel said through a thick piece of bacon.
"Actually, it's extortion." That was Lofren, whose father was a magistrate. "Blackmail implies--"
His squad-mates dragged him to his feets and took him to saddle their mounts. Kel was grateful. Lofren was happy to talk about matters of law at length, in detail, to anyone who would listen.

  • Eric Idle's Rutland Dirty Weekend Book contains a letter to critics in which Idle explicitly states they will be paid bribes for a good review of the book, and subject to physical violence for a bad review, and notes that blackmail is an ugly word, "but in this case, it's also a very accurate one."
  • The novel And Here's To You has main female character Alicia Mitchell use this exact line on a co-worker at an office party. Partially Justified by the character's internal monologue revealing that she was directly quoting Bender from Futurama (see the second page quote above) when she did so.
  • Variant: In the Lord Darcy novel Too Many Magicians, when the Marquis of London pressures Darcy to take a case, Master Sean calls it blackmail:

"'Blackmail' is perhaps too strong a word," Lord Darcy said thoughtfully, "but I will admit that no other is quite strong enough."

  • Inverted in The Culture novel The Player of Games. The protagonist is blackmailed by a drone and the drone actually says something like "What I'm doing to you is called blackmail." Presumably, since The Culture is a utopia, the protagonist might not actually know what blackmail is.

Live-Action TV

Xander: Blackmail is such an ugly word.
Amy: I didn't say blackmail.
Xander: Yeah, but I'm about to blackmail you, so I thought I'd bring it up.

  • In Diff'rent Strokes, Arnold gets into a fight with the bullying son of the landlord's brother who is subbing for a short time. This leads to a loud confrontation where the brother confronts Mr. Drummond, threatens to evict the family and provokes Drummond to punch the blowhard out. Later, the Landlord comes to the Drummonds saying that he approved of his dumb brother being put in his place. He also exploits a lease violation that the brother found to raise the rent on the Drummonds, with a veiled threat of eviction to convince them to give in. When Drummond protests that this is blackmail, the landlord responds "I prefer to think of it as plea bargaining". The punchline is after the Drummonds cave in to this threat, the father tells the kids that this is the result of his act of violence. However, when asked if it was worth it, Mr. Drummond immediately remarks it was for having the pleasure of shutting a bully up.
  • Inverted in an episode of Malcolm in the Middle. After Reese destroyed a new fridge via a hand grenade given to him by his grandfather, Hal sits down with his in-laws and asks for money to repair the damages and then some. His father-in-law believes this is a loan to be paid back. Hal calmly informs them that they endangered the children by bringing live munitions into the house and that he could have them arrested for that. He then proceeds to tell them "Don't think of it as a loan. Think of it as blackmail."
  • Done in an episode of M*A*S*H.

BJ: Blackmail is such an ugly word.
Hawkeye: We prefer extortion.

  • Subverted in Jeeves and Wooster. Bertie gets blackmailed by his cousin, and sets her up for the line as such: "Are you blackmailing me?" Even though most of the characters can be rather verbose, she just looks at him for a moment and replies with a simple "Yes."
  • Creed Bratton uses the trope name directly in the webisodes for The Office.
  • Alias Smith and Jones:

Heyes: This is blackmail, Georgette. You know that.
Georgette: I hate the word blackmail.
Curry: You like extortion any better?

Inspector Thorne: You're blackmailing me?
John: That's a very non-wonderful word, Inspector. But yes, I am.

Admiral Gregory Maitland: That's blackmail!
Sam Axe: No, actually, sir, I believe this form of extortion is known as graymail. It's much nicer than blackmail.

  • Yes Minister gave us a version of this, when the black, male revolutionary leader of a small African nation threatens to give a strongly nationalist speech in Scotland unless the Government gives him £50m.

Sir Humphrey: It's blackmail!
General Selim Mohammed: Are you referring to me or my proposal?
Jim Hacker: Your proposal, obviously! No, wait, not even your proposal!

Puppet Shows

Leo: ... and I thought, what a coincidence! Your show is hiring a Singing Mailman and I... have your dirty tape?
Dottie Sunshine: You're blackmailing me?
Leo: (as Jack Nicholson) Blackmail is such a dirty word.
Leo: (as himself) Jack Nicholson, Chinatown. And yes.


  • A spoof of this trope, from the British radio series I'm Sorry:

John (Cleese): So... it's blackmail, is it?
Graeme (Garden) : Please. Blackmail is such an ugly word.
John: All right. How about... fishpaste?
Graeme: Much better.
John: So... it's fishpaste, is it?
Graeme: I'm afraid so.

    • Were those the guys who gave us this exchange?

Blackmail is such an ugly word.
You think so?
It's the transition between the 'k' and the 'm' that does it for me. "Blackmail", ugh, it's an ungainly word.
Well, what word do you prefer?

Tabletop Games

  • Inverted in the Z-Man Productions card game Bell-Bottomed Badasses on the Mean Streets of Funk. "Extortion is such an ugly word. Me & the brothas prefer blackmail"


Video Games

Snake: So, you're blackmailing me?
Col. Campbell: I prefer to think of it as helping to make you come to a decision more easily.

Web Original

Jadis: Ooh. That sounds like blackmail. And blackmail is such an ugly word.
Ayla: I prefer "intentional torts". At least it sounds like some deliberately tasty desserts.

Web Comics

Kevyn: That wasn't blackmail. That was, I don't know... passive extortion?

Max: Joe, you're blackmailing people!
Joe: "Blackmail" is such a negative term. I prefer "mail of color".

Scroggs: Blackmail is such a negative term. Let's call it Proactive Synergy Reallocation.
Ix: Let's call it Susan. Ix always like that name.

Lothar: You're blackmailing someone, aren't you?
Virus: (with hurt expression) We prefer the term "extortion".
Eastwood: Hey, it's not our fault if Commander Schaefer leaves videos of his secret chicken fetish lying around. Anybody could've broken into his apartment and found them.

Western Animation

Bender: There's nothing wrong with murder. Just as long as you let Bender wet his beak.
Leela: You're blackmailing me?
Bender: Blackmail is such an ugly word. I prefer extortion. The "X" makes it sound cool.

Examples of a different Ugly Word

Anime and Manga

Dee: So you are in cahoots with Berkeley after all, aren't you? I knew something was up.
Diana: Awww, cahoots is such a mean, ugly word. We're more like childhood friends, if anything. Swear to God.

Comic Books

Jessica Duchamp: The painting. You're stealing it.
Riddler: "Stealing" is such an unpleasant word. I prefer "acquiring". It's much more aesthetically pleasing to the tongue.

Lisa: You fake the Mars missions here?
Lindsay Neagle: "Fake" is such a harsh word. Accurate, but harsh.

Fan Works

  • The Bleach fanfic Uninvited Guest, when it is claimed that Yumokin is being murdered rather than sacrificing his own life, he says "Murder is such a harsh word. Accurate, but harsh."
  • Nilvac and Sebboh, from Calvin and Hobbes: The Series, react this way to being called "evil". They prefer "dark".


  • In Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Milo accuses the others on the expedition of being mercenaries, only to be told they "prefer the term 'adventure capitalist.'"
  • In sequels to Aladdin, it's nearly Iago's catchphrase to say "Hate/traitor is such a strong word".
  • Robin Hood:

Little John: You know sump'n, Robin, I was just wonderin' -- are we good guys or bad guys? You know, I mean, uh, our robbin' the rich to feed the poor...
Robin Hood: "Rob?" Tsk tsk tsk tsk -- that's a naughty word; we never "rob." We just... sort of borrow a bit from those who can afford it.
Little John: "Borrow?" Huh. Boy, are we in debt!

  • In The Freshman, the following dialogue occurs near the end:

Clark: So this whole thing as been a scam?
Carmine: This is an ugly word, 'scam.' This is business. If you want to be in business, this is what you do.

Gittes: She was cheating on him. Were you?
Mrs. Mulwray: I dislike the word "cheat".
Gittes: Did you have affairs?
Mrs. Mulwray: Mr. Gittes.

  • Parodied in Tron, when Alan Bradley goes to find out what Flynn knows about the hacker in ENCOM's system, figures out it's him, and asks if he's been embezzling. Flynn's response is a sarcastic, "Embezzling is such an ugly word, Mr. Bradley," followed by the actual explanation, that he was searching for the evidence that Dillinger's hit arcade games were, in fact, Flynn's.
  • Accepted:

Bartleby Gaines: Eh, Stalking's an ugly word. I prefer obsessively shadowing.

Peter Parker: Spider Man wasn't trying to attack the city… he was trying to save it. That's slander.
J. Jonah Jameson: It is not. I resent that. Slander is spoken. In print, it's libel.

  • Inverted in Entrapment, when Mac explains to Virginia how he can frame her for a theft.

Virginia: I said this is called entrapment.
Mac: No, this is blackmail. Entrapment is what cops do to thieves.

Thor: if... you return the items you have taken from Jane.
Jane Foster: Stolen.
Agent Coulson: Borrowed.


  • In fantasy settings, the thief may prefer a title like "Expert Treasure Finder". Especially if they are grouped with paladins.
    • In The Hobbit, Gloin tells Bilbo, "You can say 'Expert Treasure-hunter' instead of 'Burglar' if you like."
  • David Eddings uses this several times in his various book series. Silk is the patron saint of this trope.
  • In the first Kingdom Keepers book, Wayne says that Finn would only "borrow" Walt Disney's pen, as oppose to stealing it. Possibly inspired by the exchange in Robin Hood, above.
  • From "The Movie They Said Could Never Be Made" in The Joy of Clichés by Nigel Rees:

Dr. Big: You're just like all the others. You think I'm mad, don't you?
Side-Kick: Not mad, but how about geisteskrank?
Dr. Big: Geisteskrank is such an ugly word.!

  • Informed by Harry Dresden that there've been two attempts on Harry's life since he was hired to follow him, a private investigator opts to discontinue his assignment, remarking that "accomplice" is an ugly word, as is "penitentiary".
  • Discussed near the end of The Star Beast:

"In other words, boss," Greenberg said softly, "you are insisting on hostages."
"'Hostage,'" Mr. Kiku said primly, "is a word that no diplomat should ever use."

Live-Action TV

  • In Farscape when Rygel is accused of "snurching" (Farscape-ese for "stealing"), he responds "I don't snurch, I... procure."
  • Who's The Boss?, "Not With My Client You Don't": Angela's assistant calls "hooker" an ugly word and prefers "call girl".
  • In the Blackadder Goes Forth episode "General Hospital", during a discussion of spying, Melchett becomes so concerned with what's "a dirty word" and what isn't that he loses touch with the actual subject entirely.

Melchett: "Security" isn't a dirty word, Blackadder. "Crevice" is a dirty word, but not "security".
Blackadder: Well, good thing your job[2] is also your hobby.
Melchett: Now there's another dirty word: "job".
(even later)
Darling: We've found a leak.
Melchett: Now "leak" is a positively disgusting word.

  • Subverted in the M*A*S*H episode "The Price".

Klinger: Bribery is such an ugly word. Ugly, but fitting.

Carl Sack: Fired is such an ugly word, Alan. An accurate one, but...

Michael: You're forcing me to break into a weapons manufacturer?
Brennen: Forcing is such an ugly word. Encouraging. Incentivizing... No, you're right, let's go with forcing.

Stephen Fry: I dislike the word brothel, Mr. Jowett. I prefer to use the word brothels. Yes, this is a brothels.
(Note that it was a shoe shop.)
Hugh: You certainly came prepared, didn't you?
Stephen: I prefer to put it this way: I certainly came prepared, didn't I?

Will: You hustled me!
Pool Shark: Hustled is such an ugly word. I like to call it creative money management.

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: In the third season finale, when Buffy informed Wesley that she was through taking orders from the Watchers Council...

Wesley: This is mutiny!
Buffy: I call it "graduation".

Garak: Commander, this is extortion!
Sisko: Hm... yes, it is.

  • In "The Scarlet Letter" episode of The Mentalist, the line is fairly self-explanatory.

Minelli: You abused a corpse to get a confession.
Jane: Used. Used a corpse. There's no "ab".

  • On an episode of Life, Charlie Crews abducts the Big Bad by waylaying his chauffeur and picking him up in his own car. When the victim points out that "this is a kidnapping," Charlie parks the car and begins to explain why he doesn't like that word and doesn't feel it applies in this case. The villain then says, "No, detective, you misunderstand me. This isn't a kidnapping. This is a kidnapping." Cue a tire iron smashing through Charlie's window.
  • Castle has a suspect in one episode who isn't fond of the word "stalking". But he did follow the victim around for a few days....
  • 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd:

Justin: I hate you!
Eddie: Justin, hate is a very strong word.

  • The Comic Strip Presents episode "Space Virgins from the Planet Sex" has alien women needing human men to get them pregnant. They shy away from the term "sex slave" in favour of a description of being forced to have sex.
  • The MacGuffin in one Hogan's Heroes episode is a collection of artwork taken from occupied France for a high-ranking German official's private collection—described as "not 'stolen'... 'confiscated'".
  • From the Frasier episode "The Devil and Dr. Willly":

Babe: I'm just talking about having a little fun. After all, when I'm having fun, I'm happy. When I'm happy, I work harder. When I work harder, you become famous and powerful. Isn't that what you want? Fame and power?
Frasier: I like to think of it more as "influence", really, but...

Hacker: You mean he's indiscreet?
Humphrey: That's such a pejorative word. I prefer to say he's obsessively honest.

Tinker: I think he means "Bent"
Lovejoy: I prefer "Coorv-ed".

Duke: Lying is such an ugly word...but yeah, I lied.

Video Games

  • In the German version of Kingdom Hearts II, Demyx responds to Goofy accusing him of being a thief with "Dieb – was für ein hässliches Wort!", meaning "Thief – what an ugly word!".
  • Final Fantasy VI with Locke, and his insistence that he's not a thief, he's a "treasure hunter". Naturally, he often "hunts for treasure" in other people's homes. But press the issue and he might rip your lungs out. Or at least steal your clothes.

"Bah! Semantic nonsense!"

Aleria: She's a sacrifice to your god?!
Chaspel: "Sacrifice" is such a harsh word. "Catalyst" sounds so much nicer.

  • This exchange is brought up in Jak II when the words "forced labour trade" are mentioned:

Jak: You mean the slave trade?
Krew: Uh, I prefer "freedom challenged".

HK-50: Clarification: "Assassin Droid" is such a crude term, master, reserved for durasteel drones with only the most archaic kill-programs. The function I perform has been referred to as "wanton slaughter". I prefer to see it as a means of facilitating communication, resulting in the termination of hostilities.

Gene: This arm makes me popular among the hellish set.
Conchita (a demon): Hellish?!? We prefer "supertropical".

  • Thief, while looting a ruined city:

Garrett: Archaeologist sounds so much more dignified than Thief.

Emogene: I object to the word "extort". It is an ugly term. We are helping them. If they are so tight with their coins that they can't pay us for this service, it is a good thing we are here to teach them manners.

Web Comics

Petey: "Spy" is such a short ugly word. I prefer "espionage". Those three extra syllables really say something.

    • Then Kathryn argues that she didn't steal the ship. With its previous captain. (Alexia finds it amusing because they were compensated later, and because it was not nearly the worst part of that mess).
  • The Order of the Stick
    • Haley Starshine dislikes being called a thief. She prefers "Freelance Wealth Redistribution Specialist".
    • Also:

Vaarsuvius: I negotiated an exchange with three gentlemen from... other planes of existence. Those in the ventral position.
Inkyrius: You sold your soul to fiends??
Vaarsuvius: Technically, it is more of a fixed-term lease with an occupancy date yet to be determined!

      • Though that one isn't a distinction without a difference- the fiends don't get V permanently as "sold" would imply. Whether it's enough of a difference is a matter of opinion. Inkyrius didn't think so.
  • Much like Haley, Mordekai from Irregular Webcomic is a "Loveable Rogue".
  • In this Sluggy Freelance strip, the Evil Chancellor doesn't like the term "bad guy", prefering to be called "morally challenged".
  • Inverted in Intragalactic:

Captain Glee: "Unofficial incentive" is such an ugly... pair of words. Let's just say I bribed you with full knowledge that I'm violating the law.

Gav: "Better" is such an ugly word...

Stan: These creatures you treasure, they are as good as dead unless you follow my instructions to the letter.
Pibgorn: So they're hostages!
Stan: "Hostage" is such an ugly, sordid word ... yes. They're hostages.

Revolver Ocelot: "Torture" is such an inelegant word. I'm an artist. Their testicles are my canvas.

Scavenger Bot: YOU ARE EVIL!
Carl: I prefer to think of it as having an intricate and meticulous disregard for other being's feelings, opinions and welfare.
Captainbot: What's the difference?
Carl: That's the beauty of it... I don't care!

Web Original

Extortion is such a nasty word.
I much prefer "magnolia". "Magnolia" is a much nicer word.

Western Animation

Cale Oosha: TREASON!
Dragit: Revolution.

  • Codename: Kids Next Door, "Op LEADER": Chad calls "traitor" an ugly word. Which he isn't.
  • In The Venture Brothers, the Guild of Calamitous Intent also don't like morally charged phrases like "good guys" or "bad guys", and insist people use "protagonist" and "antagonist" instead. In all fairness, with guys like Brock Sampson running around, it is a legitimate complaint.
  • The Simpsons:
    • Homer posing as 4th-grader:

Homer: (to Sherri) C'mon, why won't you go out with Bart?
Sherri: He's a smelly, ugly dork!
Homer: Ugly is such a smelly word.

    • Another Simpsons example:

Lisa: You're replacing me?
Homer: Now, Lisa, "dumping" is such a harsh word. Let's just say I'm replacing you.

    • And another:

Marge: Did you jimmy open Mr. Burns' liquor cabinet?
Homer: Jimmy is such an ugly word. Unless you're talking about Jimmy Smits. Mrrow!

Mr. Krabs: (takes the safe out from his throat) And I bet you tried to steal this, too.
Plankton: (chuckles) Well, steal is such a strong word.

  • Metalocalypse: The band members don't like talking about dying (when it's them); they prefer the term "hamburger time".
  1. Not the Trope Namer; M*A*S*H used the same sentence over a decade earlier
  2. frisking