Scott’s School of Grammar: “Scott Free”


I have been wondering about the origins of this phrase for quite some time. I finally took the time to research it, and the results were somewhat surprising. I’ll give you three possibilities, with the answer to follow in a soon-to-come comment:

1) Dred Scott was a black slave born in Virginia, USA in 1799. In several celebrated court cases, right up to the USA Supreme Court in 1857, he attempted to gain his freedom. These cases all failed but Scott was later made a free man by his ‘owners’, the Blow family. The etymology of this phrase shows the danger of trying to prove a case on circumstantial evidence alone.

2) The origin of the phrase “scott free” lies in the original wording, “scotch free”. “Scotch” is used in this sense to be a scratch, mar, or scar, particularly in a grid pattern. Similar uses of “scotch” in this context include “butterscotch”, (made with butter, has to be sliced up in the pan after cooling), “hop=scotch”, (a child’s game that in part involves “hop”-ping over grid lines /”scotches”) and “Scotch plaid”, (refering to the regular gridwork formed by the boundaries of the different colors/patterns). Hence, to escape “scott free” is emerge from a dangerous circumstance without even a scratch or mark, much less more severe damage.

3) The term is a contraction of ‘scot and lot’. Scot was the tax and lot, or allotment, was the share given to the poor. Scot as a term for tax has been used since then to mean many different types of tax. Whatever the tax, the phrase ‘scot free’ just refers to not paying one’s taxes

Answer to follow on Sunday 6/22/08

Comment your guess!


Published in: on June 20, 2008 at 3:09 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think #2 sounds about right.

  2. I happen to know the answer, so I won’t spoil it by guessing, but you might be interested to know that the phrase ‘scot-free’ has survived over a thousand years… It’s attested in Old English as ‘scot-freo’, where ‘scot’ is pronounced ‘shot’.

    Until I found it in my Anglo-Saxon dictionary, I had always assumed the phrase had something to do with Scottish people- that perhaps at some stage in history, you could escape justice by fleeing to Scotland.

  3. My research showed that the overwhelming evidence supports,

    Answer #3.

    Medieval folk were just as reticent to pay taxes as us. I wouldn’t mind going scott-free myself now, especially on gas taxes..

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