The Meaning and Origin of “Scot-free”

Scot-free meaning

Have you ever done something risky and gotten away with it with no harm? You could have rolled the dice, eaten two-day-old unrefrigerated sushi, and escaped without serious gastric distress. If so, you’ve navigated that event scot-free. 

In other words, to get away scot-free means you’ve done something utterly free of penalty or harm. 

Why do we regularly utter this phrase when we’ve dodged a bullet? Because it’s a handy metaphorical phrase that captures the feeling of a momentous moment, people can use it to convey a sense of “getting away” with something without an expected harmful result or penalty. 

A graph showing the definition of the common expression "scot-free" to mean "Do get away with something utterly free of penalty or harm."

Origin of Scot-free

“Scot-free” originates from a Scandinavian word, “SKOT,” which means “tax” or “payment.” During the 10th century, Middle English users bastardized the word into “bescot” and then “scot” as the moniker for a tax meant paid to a lord, bailiff, or sheriff. 

These taxes refer to soulscots which were ecclesiastical due paid for every deceased person to the church’s clergy in consideration for services performed. In other words, the dead had to pay a dead tax; they didn’t get out of life “scot-free.”

Scots also showed up in the term scot-ale. A scot-ale was a drinking party held by a sheriff, forester, or bailiff. Or it might have been a church gathering and festival where people were forced to attend and pay a levy or scot. 

The French called the tax an “escot,” Modern English users morphed the word into “scot.”

If you did not have to pay or evaded the tax, you were said to have gotten off “scot-free.” The meaning has been broadened to indicate that a person got away with something without punishment.

Scot-free vs. Scotch-free: What’s the Difference Between the Two?

Have you heard the saying being modified to “scotch-free?” That is simply an incorrect version of the expression. 

Scotch is a type of malt whisky or grain whisky made in Scotland. Typically, distilleries make scotch whisky from water and malted barley, wheat, or rye. 

So if you were to reach for a bottle of scotch whisky and the bottle slipped and crashed to the floor but missed your toe–your toe would have gotten out of that situation “scot-free.” But, because you dropped the whisky, you are now scotch free. 

What About Scott-Free? 

This misspelling is another common error. Dred Scott was a Black man born into slavery in Virginia in 1799. Scott sued for his freedom in the US courts. 

The basis of Scott’s case was that he lived in Illinois and the Wisconsin territory for four years, and slavery was illegal there. Also, the laws in that state invalidated slaveholders’ rights to enslaved people if they spent time in the territory. 

The Supreme Court ruled against him 7-2, arguing that no person of African ancestry could claim citizenship in the United States. The decision was called the Dred Scott decision and caused tension between the North and South, eventually leading to the Civil War. 

While an interesting bit of Americana, Dred Scott has nothing to do with the phrase “scot-free,” and any use of the word “Scott-free” is a misspelling. 

Does Scot-free Refer to Scotland, Scots, or the Scottish?

Scot-free has nothing to do with Scotland, Scots, or the Scottish. It refers to a medieval redistributive tax that people had to pay. Not the country, people, or whisky.

What About Shot-free vs. Scot-free?

You can thank Shakespeare for the use of shot-free. Remember, the Old Scandanavian word was “SKOT.” 

The Bard of Avon used a similar sounding word in his Henry IV, Part I, when Falstaff says: “Though I could ‘scape shot-free at London, I fear the shot here; here’s no scoring but upon the pate.” 

How Do People Use The Term Scot-Free?

Let’s have a look at some examples from reputable media sources:

  • You think you’re smart. You got away scot-free,” Alice Munro, The New Yorker.
  • Actually, I didn’t think we got as rough a ride as we should have done. We got off scot-free, really,” Steve Harmison, The Independent.
  • Roman citizen[s] had the fundamental right to due process and fair trial; summary execution contravened the most basic of civil liberties, then as now. Cicero did not escape scot-free,” Mary Beard, The Guardian.

Further reading:

Go To Hell In A Handbasket – Meaning And Examples

A Bird In The Hand (Is Worth Two In The Bush)

Bears The Weight (And Other “Bear” Expressions)

What Is The Meaning Of “Goody Two Shoes?”

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