Fraser’s Phrases: The Curious And Ancient Origins Of ‘Scot Free’

A Scottish pound note. Not free.

A Scottish pound note. Not free.

What, you may ask, is so free about a Scot? Which Scot got away with something that he or she possibly should not have done, and why has this miscarriage of justice lasted so long in the language of the British Isles?

Well, actually, it’s not derived from anything to do with Scotland or Scottish people. The word scot derives from the Scandinavian skat, which came over to England either with the Vikings or the Saxons (who had themselves been invaded by Vikings) over 1,000 years ago. And it describes a payment or levy everyone was supposed to contribute towards the common good. A tax, in other words.

The scot, back in medieval terms, was a proportional tax everyone was supposed to pay, according to their means. The richer you were, or the bigger your property, the more of a scot you’d have to pay, and the money would go to help the poor and generally enhance the community.

However, if you had a house in an unfortunate area, devoid of easy access to running water, or at risk of being flooded, you could avoid paying the scot altogether. You’d be, in fact, scot free. And for around 500 years, that’s all it meant.

However, as time has passed, and the scot has faded from common use, natural resentment for the people who did not have to pay the fines clearly built up, so the phrase lost some of its original thrust, to do with helping people who need looking after, and been used to describe those who have evaded taking responsibility for their actions. Or worse, do not pull their weight.

So now, it’s a phrase entirely aimed at people who’ve evaded justice, and comes with the weight of angry judgement.

Of course, the English have long held the stereotype that Scottish people are stingy with their money, which probably adds an extra layer of significance to the term, given its actual origins.

And while some people claim that there’s a confusion around the case of Dred Scott, the slave who unsuccessfully went to the U.S. supreme court to try and win freedom for his wife and family (and thereby added cause and momentum to a chain of events that resulted in the Civil War), it seems highly unlikely that many people genuinely believe scot free is even partially related to that situation. And even if they do, they’re about 700 years too late to make a strong claim of authorship.

See more: 
Five British Sayings to Live By
Ten British English Words That Are Surprisingly Uncommon In The U.S.
Ten Commonly-Misused Expressions From British English
10 British Words That Don’t Have a U.S. Equivalent

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

See more posts by Fraser McAlpine