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.
Variations on the theme sometimes appear for other "ugly" words in various situations where the perpetrator can't or won't deny the substance of the accusation but insists on softening it with a euphemism.
A subtrope of No, Except Yes and Insistent Terminology.
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In Mayo Chiki!, Kanade threatens to do things to Jiro if he ever leaks out the secret that her butler Subaru is actually a girl. She then also promises to cure him of his gynophobia (fear of women, thanks to his sister and mother doing "wrestling training", or rather beating him up, every day), although she largely just does it because she finds teasing him funny.
In episode 5, Jiro is forced to pretend to be Usami's boyfriend during the school festival, or she'll leak a photo she took of him and Subaru dressed up as a regular girl out. Naturally, this occurs just after he promised to take Subaru, who's not happy with the sudden change of plans.
Subverted in an episode of Mazinger Z. The Dragon Baron Ashura hijacked a plane and threatened The Professor Yumi with killing all passengers if he didn't hand over the plans for the Mazinger's Mid-Season Upgrade. Yumi protested that was theft and blackmail. Ashura languidly replied: "OF COURSE it is. What else did you expect from me?"
In Working, Hiroomi Souma is a master of this trope. When he learns about a character and their secrets, he will talk to them and start casually mentioning said secret(s). Which then causes them to immediately do his work for them so as to not have him reveal their secret. Of course, it doesn't always work, and some characters are immune to this, such as Jun Souta.
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"
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".
In one early Dilbert storyline, an abusive skunk shows up at Dilbert's doorstep.
Skunk: Don't worry. Skunks only spray musk when scared. Dilbert: Then why is your tail twitching? Skunk: I'm scared you won't fix me a big bowl of strawberry ice cream. Dilbert: This is blackmail! Skunk: No it's not. I'm just easily frightened...Now I'm scared you won't sing the entire score from Cats while I eat.
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 interchangeable with extortion - and by this page you can see there are quite the number of them.
Basically, extortion is generally when someone threatens to do harm that would be illegal in and of itself until they get what they want, and blackmail is when someone threatens to do harm by revealing information that they can otherwise legally reveal - only becoming illegal when they demand money in exchange for their silence.
Inverted for great effect in They Call Me Trinity when the title character threatened to tell people his brother wasn't a real sheriff.
Bambino: That sounds like blackmail. Trinity: Yeah, it does.
Inverted in Entrapment, where Gin is shown the evidence of her theft of the Rembrandt by Mac. She claims it's "entrapment". Mac counters that entrapment is when a cop does this to a thief. When a thief does it to another thief, it's just blackmail. Then it turns out that Mac is an FBI informant.
Kevin Flynn almost says this word-for-word ("embezzling" instead of "blackmail") in TRON.
"You followed me here." "Tut. Followed is such an ugly word. I prefer 'blackmail'." "What?" "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.
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?" "Persuade." "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.
Lord Peter Wimsey himself engages in a little blackmail in one of the short stories, but he would of course not use that word.
In the Tamora Pierce novel Lady Knight, Kel has decided to commit treasonto save refugees and is angered when she finds people willing to help - they'll get charged, same as her. One of them teasingly says she won't get to use the potentially very helpful maps he brought unless they come with her.
"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 feet 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.
Lampshaded or subverted or something in Brass, when one character sets out to blackmail another, and they hold a conversation in which each suggests what the other would be likely to say next — starting with this line.
Klinger: Bribery is such an ugly word. Ugly, but fitting.
BJ: Blackmail is such an ugly word. Hawkeye: We prefer extortion.
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.
Inversion: After Reese destroyed a new fridge in Malcolm in the Middle 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."
Subversion: In Jeeves and Wooster, Bertie gets blackmailed by Stiffy, 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.
Inspector Thorne: You're blackmailing me? John: That's a very non-wonderful word, Inspector. But yes, I am.
Burn Notice has the occasional use, as spies use plenty of doublespeak. One episode has Jesse convincing a target to follow Michael's plan, or some information is getting to the media.
Wayne Meyerson: Wait. Are you blackmailing me? Jesse: Yeah. But... let's not call it that. Let's call it 'a potential win-win'.
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 £50 (50 GBP = 82.9 USD) (50 GBP (50 GBP = 82.9 USD) = 82.9 USD)m.
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!
Caryn: You know, Dr. Solomon, this could be interpreted as blackmail. Dick: No, Caryn, it's extortion.
In Hannibal, the title character manipulates Abigail Hobbs into silence after she accidentally murders someone. He prefers to call it "keeping each other secrets".
An episode of The Good Life ("The Pagan Rite" in series 1) has Margo on the telephone giving her choir mistress a long list of reasons why she should be allowed to stand in the front row for their upcoming performance. She gets her way:
Margo: No I have not finished, Miss Mountshaft. Furthermore, let us remember that it is I who supply the gingerbread men for rehearsal teas. (pause) Ha ha ha ha ha, blackmail is an ugly word, Miss Mountshaft."
On I Love Lucy, Ricky accuses Lucy of trying to blackmail him.
Lucy: Let's not call it that.
Ricky: That's what it is!
Lucy: I know, but let's not call it that.
In The Rockford Files episode "The Empty Frame, Angel tells his brother-in-law "When it's in the immediate family it's not called blackmail. It's called family spirit."
Subverted in an episode of Bones when Brennan shows the federal prosecutor evidence she has on his illicit activity and threatens to reveal it if he doesn't have the false charges against Booth dropped.
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.
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? Caterpillar.
In one of her routines as Ernestine the telephone operator, Lily Tomlin tells a customer, "Blackmail is such an ugly word. Let's just call it a vicious threat."
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.
In Borderlands 2, Handsome Jack became president of Hyperion by threatening the previous president. At first, Jack doesn't want to use an ugly word like blackmail...until he decides that blackmail is actually an awesome word.
Jack: C'mon, say it with me! Blackmail! Blllllaaaaaack-
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.
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.
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!
Films — Live-Action
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.
In Back to the Future Part II, as Doc Brown is unveiling his plan of returning Marty back 1985 (as he went to 1885 to presumably rescue Doc), he starts to say "We're going to hijack...", before freezing, immediately correcting himself and placing emphasis on new terminology with a wide, toothy grin, "BORROW... the locomotive..."
In Part II, Doc also "borrowed" some old newspapers from the closed-down Hill Valley Library in 1985-A.
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".
Reacher Gilt, anticipating his co-conspirators' thought processes in Going Postal, contemptuously muses that (at least for them) "embezzlement" is such a difficult word.
In one of Ernest Bramah's "Kai Lung" stories, what most fantasy stories would call the thieves' Guild refers to itself as the "Joined-Together Band of Excrescence-Removers and Superfluity Adjustors".
In Spock's World, McCoy insists on his hacking being called "borrowing" rather than "stealing."
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". [later] Blackadder: Well, good thing your jobnote frisking 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.
MASH had this in the episode where Hawkeye and BJ were named morale officers and Klinger shook them down for a 3-day pass to go on an errand for them.
Klinger: "Thief" is such an ugly word. Shall we say "entrepreneur"?
A little later, when they find out Klinger was going where they wanted him to anyway:
Hawkeye: You just stole a 3-day pass from us.
Klinger: "Stole" is such an ugly word. Shall we say "creatively acquired"?
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.) and Hugh: You certainly came prepared, didn't you? Stephen: I prefer to put it this way: I certainly came prepared, didn't I?
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....
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...
Duke: Lying is such an ugly word...but yeah, I lied.
Used on The Big Bang Theory, about a robot belonging to NASA that Howard brought with him to Leonard and Sheldon's apartment.
Penny: Does NASA know you're using that thing as a napkin holder? Howard: Are you kidding? They still think it's in a secure locker at JPL. Penny: You stole it? Howard:Borrowed! The trick is to carry it out to your car like you own it.
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.
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.
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.
Kurtis: Hmph. They're nothing but pawns to you, huh... General Carter: What an ugly way of saying it, Kurtis. I prefer to call them the "heroes who sacrificed their lives for the earth". Muhahahahaha!!
Haley Starshine dislikes being called a thief. She prefers "Freelance Wealth Redistribution Specialist".
Also, when Vaarsuvius' mate questions where V got a massive power boost:
Vaarsuvius: I negotiated an exchange with three gentlemen from... other planes of existence. Inkyrius:Which planes? Vaarsuvius: 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!
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.
In The Venture Bros., 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.
Amber: "Extortion" is such an ugly word. I prefer..."extortion". Dan: That's the same word. Amber: I said it nicer the second time.
In Danny Phantom when Danny calls Vlad a Green Bay Packers fanatic. Vlad openly admits it.
Vlad: Fanatic is such a negative word... but yes.
In Batman: The Animated Series, when a captured Batman is put on "trial" by the inmates of Arkham Asylum and district attorney Janet Van Dorn helps him as best she can by sowing discord among the criminals:
Harley: Ha! You're just jealous because you don't have a fella who's as lovin' and loyal to you as my Puddin' is to me! Van Dorn: Ah-ha. And I suppose it was that same "loyalty" I saw the last time you escaped and "Puddin'" here finked on you in hopes of getting time off! Harley:(dejected) Is that true, Puddin'? Joker:(sheepishly) "Finked" is such an ugly word.... Harley:(grabs Joker and starts shaking him)You lousy, scum sucking creep!