Stupid Question ™
July 6, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: What is the origin of the term “scot-free”?
A: Popular etymologies and such variations as “scotch-free” to the contrary, this phrase has nothing to do with the Scottish people.
Capital-S “Scot” goes back to Scottus, the Roman name for Britian’s Gaelic-speaking people. The source of the name is unknown; it may derive from a Gaelic word, or from a Briton or Gaul name for such tribes.
Small-S “scot” of “scot-free,” on the other hand, is easy to trace. It goes back to Old Norse skot, meaning “contribution” or “payment.” The root word is skattr (“tax” or “treasure”), which in turn has Old Teutonic ancestry.
Popping up around AD 1000, scot was a community tax that everybody paid in proportion to their income. Anyone who evaded the tax, or was exempt from it, got off “scot-free.”
Another phrase of the day was “scot and lot” (or “lot and scot”), referring to such taxation or more broadly to one’s worldly obligations as a whole. To pay someone “scot and lot” meant to totally pay your debt.
Scot was also a verb, meaning either to assess a tax or to share in paying a communal bill.
As a noun, scot also evolved the share-in-a-bill meaning, especially in the context of a bar tab or dinner bill. The phrase “paying for your scot” meant picking up your share. Getting off “scot-free” still meant getting away with not paying. (A false pop etymology claims “scot-free” originated in bars, where tabs were kept as “scotches” or marks on a slate.)
As time has worn on, “scot-free” has taken on a more metaphorical meaning of exemption from any sort of punishment or harm. Often the phrase is used simply to mean that someone escaped a bad situation, with “scot” merely serving as an intensifying adjective rather than as a money reference.
It’s not surprising that people often think “scot” and “Scot” are related; even in Old English and Old French, the words were homonyms.
Interestingly, there is another common word that “scot” is related to—“shot,” which comes in part from the same Norse roots and which in medieval times had a meaning synonymous with “scot.” (“Shot and lot” was sometimes used instead of “scot and lot.”)
This meaning of “shot” now remains only in the British slang phrase “to stand shot,” meaning to pay for everybody (as in a bar tab).