Saturday, November 17, 2012


Ron from Northport asked about the origin of scot-free. It means without being punished, without consequences. It often shows up as “he got off scot-free.”

There are at least two explanations, one a romantic fabrication and one an actual fact.

The fabrication revolves around a historical figure, Dred Scott. Scott was a slave who sued for his freedom in 1847. After years of legal maneuvering, his case came before the Supreme Court. That august body ruled that all people of African ancestry, whether slave or free, could never become citizens of the United States and therefore could not sue in federal court.

Ulimately, childhood friends of Scot bought him and then set him and his wife free. Sadly, he died only nine months later, Scott-free.

The reality is that the word scot once meant a tax or tribute paid by a feudal tenant to his or her lord or ruler in proportion to the ability to pay. As one R. Higdon put it in 1425, “Scot, that is the paymente of a certeyne money to the vtilite of the lorde.”

So if you got off scot-free, you didn’t have to pay the tax or tribute.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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