Judy from Gaylord asked
about the phrase scot free. There are a few folk etymologies connected with
this phrase; in other words, popular (but incorrect) guesses.
First of all, stop
picturing kilts, haggis, and bagpipes. The phrase has nothing to do with
Scotland and its inhabitants.
And don’t be tempted to
think of Dredd Scott (1846 – 1847), a slave who sued for his freedom. In the
very year that he died, the United States Supreme Court ruled that all people
of African ancestry, slave as well as free, were ineligible for citizenship,
and therefore couldn’t sue in federal court. The elements are there—a man named
Scott and the idea of being free—but the phrase scot-free goes back to medieval
Scot probably goes back
to the Old Icelandic word skattr, a
tribute or tax. It came into Old English as shot, then scot. It designated a
municipal tax spread over a general population. Sometimes the tax was paid to
the local lord or ruler. At other times, it went to the sheriff or bailiff. If
a citizen could evade the tax, he or she went scot-free.
There were other
recipients of taxes, too. The church scot—usually a measure of grain due on St.
Martin’s Day (November 11)—went to local ecclesiastical authorities. The Rome
scot went to the Holy See, at least before the Reformation. The soul scot was
money paid in memory of the deceased to his or her parish.
My favorite is the
scot-ale, a fest sponsored by the lord of the manor that required compulsory
participation and an involuntary contribution. No doubt the primitive predecessor
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