Scot free

Scratch that.

Dear Word Detective:  Every now and again it is my utmost pleasure to “run across” your website.  At this juncture I am looking for the origin of the term “scott free” and, alas, you do not have the answer.  I hope that you will come through for me soon. — ncarolinafran.

Well, there you go.  More evidence that I’m just a digital wallflower, waiting patiently by the side of the web, hoping that strangers will happen by my rickety little stand and read my glittering prose, perchance to tell their friends and someday propel me to Hollywood fame and fortune as the George Clooney of etymology.  As a marketing strategy, this plan has clearly not caught fire.

As for your question, however, I can steal the slogan of the Staples office supply chain and declare “Yeah, we’ve got that.”  I actually did a column on this question back in 1999, which is, even as we speak, snoozing peacefully in my online archives at www.word-detective.com.  But 1999 was a long time ago, so it can’t hurt to revisit the topic.

The reason you didn’t notice the answer to your question in our archives is that the phrase is properly spelled “scot-free,” with only one “t.”  That correction, of course, raises the next question many folks have about “scot-free,” which is its relation to Scotland (and the Scots who live there).  There isn’t one.  Really.  No connection whatsoever.

The “scot” in “scot-free” is an English word taken from Old Norse, where it meant “tax or assessment.”  In the Middle Ages in England, each town levied a general tax on residents which was called the “scot.”  If for some reason a citizen was ruled exempt from the tax, he was said to  go “scot-free.”  This tax-related literal sense of the phrase first appeared in the 13th century.  But by the 16th century “scot-free” was being used in its more general modern sense of “exempt from punishment, responsibility or blame” (“She should not, for all the trouble she has cost you, go away scot-free,” 1740).

Speaking of words that sound as if they must have something to do with Scotland but don’t, “scotch,” meaning “to abruptly deflate or disprove” a rumor or theory, is another. This “scotch” comes from the Old French word “escocher,” meaning “to cut.” In this case it meant to “cut out” or destroy a rumor. It is, in fact, the same non-Scottish “scotch” as is found in the name of the children’s game “hopscotch,” referring to the playing lines cut into or drawn on the ground.  And while we’re at it, butterscotch candy doesn’t come from you-know-where. It’s called that because it is made from butter and used to be cut (“scotched”) into small pieces.

4 comments on this post.
  1. Marc Naimark:

    Aha! And here is the connection to a fairly rare word in French: “écot”. Most of those “éc-” and “ét-” words have an English equivalent with “sch-”/”sc-” and “st-”…

    An “écot” is the share a person owes in a common expense. “Payer son écot” means to pay ones fair share.

  2. Bill:

    According to my information the term was in reference to the political control exercised over the Pennsylvania Legislature by the then worlds largest corporation the Pennsylvania Railroad and its President Thomas A. Scott. Reportedly Mr. Scott had a lobbyist permanently assigned to the Legislature and all Bills had to be reviewed by Scott’s man. Some in the legislature preferred to go Scott Free… in other words without influence of Scott and his powerful Pennsylvania Railroad.

  3. Yael:

    Bill, have you actually read this article? Your version, nice as the story may be, falls apart completely when you see that there is an example of this phrase from 1740. That’s almost 100 years before your Mr. Scott was even born (1823, according to Wikipedia), and MORE than a 100 years before the Pennsylvania Railroad corporation came to be (1846, fron the same handy source).

    Why DO people stick to convoluted stories even after being presented with a good explanation?

  4. words1:

    That’s the $20,000 question. Probably because we are pattern-seeking critters and when a particularly apt coincidence pops up we tend to give it extra weight, esp. if it’s in our field of expertise. I’m wondering whether pullmans.com is a railroad-related domain.

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