Scot Free

I heard it used the other day in an old western (my husband loves old westerns — rarely lets a day go by without a dose of “Maverick” and “Wyatt Earp” and a Gene Autry film).  I don’t think I hear it as much as I used to, but the truth is a good deal goes in one ear and out the other on a daily basis.  The phrase “scot free” intrigues me because I’ve always assumed it derived from some English reference to a perception of the Scotch as being adept at getting something for nothing.  The meanings and applications of phrases so often get bent out of shape, you know.  Howsomever, according to Gary Martin, regular contributor to the Phrasefinder website ( and Michael Quinion who writes “World Wide Words” (, the phrase has nothing to do with whether or not Scotsmen are good at pinching pennies.  Both site a Norse/Scandinavian origin.  The word “skat” meant a tax or contribution used to aid the poor.  In medieval times, Brits couldn’t vote unless they paid their “scot and lot” — their share paid into a pot for community benefits, a tax in other words.  Therefore, anyone who managed to avoid paying his “scot and lot” without penalty was said to get off “scot free”.

There have been other common uses of “got off scot free” as well, like the guy who slips off without paying up his fair contribution to a bar tab, or a rapscallion who escapes justice.  Mr. Quinion, in fact, remarks that there is also a school of thought suggesting that “scot free” may be a child of the tavern term for making marks to track the purchase of drinks: “scotching it”.

So, now I’m leaning away from a fuzzy notion in my gray matter that “hopscotch” bears any kin to “scot free” since the Scotch have been found blameless for any part in the transmogrification of that phrase.  Doggone-it!  Oo!  Oo!  I wonder how in the wide world that little euphemism came into being?

About RobbieAnnLewis

To me, words are like garden plants -- if planted in the right places, well-weeded, lovingly coaxed and given light, they will feed mind and spirit. I live with my boyfriend -- a man who has his own way with words -- by a bay on the Texas Gulf Coast.
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