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Scot free

Q From Pete Barnes: Exactly whence came the term scot free? Does it, as it sounds, refer to citizens of Scotland? Or am I reading something into that?

A Scot free has no connection with Scotsmen, frugal or otherwise. It’s an accidental connection, just as it is in hopscotch.

Scot is from an Old Norse word that meant a payment or contribution and which is linked to the modern French écot, a share of communal expenses, as in payer son écot, to pay one’s share. It is a close relative of shot, which at one time could have the same meaning of a contribution or a share of expenses.

The expression scot free derives from a medieval municipal tax levied in proportional shares on inhabitants, often for poor relief. This tax was called a scot, as an abbreviation of the full term scot and lot, where scot was the sum to be paid and lot was one’s allotted share. (This tax lasted a long time, in some places such as Westminster down to the electoral reforms of 1832, with only those paying scot and lot being allowed to vote.) So somebody who avoided paying his share of the town’s expenses for some reason got off scot free.

Scot was also used for a payment or reckoning, especially one’s share of the cost of an entertainment; when one settled up, one “paid for one’s scot”. Again, someone who evaded paying their share of the tab got off scot free.

It’s been suggested that this usage may have come from the old habit of noting purchases of drinks and the like by making marks on a slate, or scotching it, but the evidence suggests this is just a popular etymology.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 24 Oct. 1998
Last updated: 2 Dec. 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 2 December 2006.