Friday, January 31, 2014


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 times.

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 to B.Y.O.B.

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