Words in the News


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

Ransomware has been in the news again, with major companies around the globe hit with demands that they pay up in order to unlock the computers disabled by the malware attacks. There has been much speculation about the identity and motives of those behind this and similar attacks, since it seems that despite the demands for payment, ransomware attacks may be intended mainly to cause disruption rather than making money.

Demands for ransom have always been a particularly nasty form of extortion: the extortionist has gained control of something (or more usually someone) and demands large amounts of money in return for their safe release. Kidnapping and ransom are the theme of innumerable real-life and fictional crimes, and everyone is familiar with the clichés of the fictional versions: the ransom note, the tense phone call with the police listening in, the threats, the even tenser exchange of money for hostage, with the possibility that everything will go horribly wrong. The phrase to hold someone to ransom has both literal and metaphorical meanings, the latter meaning to try and make someone do something using threats.

The word ransom came into English from French in the early medieval period and soon moved from its original meaning of ‘penalty’ or ‘fine’ to the one most widely used today, a sum of money paid for the return of a hostage. The expression a king’s ransom evokes the huge amount of money that anyone who captured a king could expect to receive in exchange for his safe return. This actually happened to King Richard I of England, commonly called Lionheart, who was captured in Austria while returning from the 3rd Crusade and held prisoner in Austria and Germany for two years before being released on payment of enormous sums. A literal King’s ransom, in fact.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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