Scot-free

By Maeve Maddox

“To escape scot-free” means to elude merited consequences:

[Construction] Site Deaths Soaring as Bosses Escape Scot Free

No escape: independent directors won’t go scot free

Now all the doctors at Mid Staffs escape scot-free over deaths.

In the Middle Ages a scot was a tax or tribute paid by a feudal tenant to his lord. The word derives from a Scandanavian word meaning tribute. It came to stand for different kinds of payments levied for services. In Kent and Sussex, the scot was a tax for the maintenance of drainage systems and flood prevention. In some contexts the scot was simply the bill owed for drinks or entertainment.

Explanations of the expression scot-free may be found on numerous web sites. Most of the sites I’ve browsed correctly trace the term to the word for a tax, but a few cling to a mistaken idea that the expression has something to do with the 1857 US Supreme Court ruling known as the “Dred Scott Decision.” For example, this confident explanation:

It’s spelt scott-free and refers to a famous US Supreme Court decision involving the black slave Dred Scott. Ironically Scott lost his suit, though you wouldn’t know it from the well-known phrase.

The misspelling scott occurs both as an error and as a play on the name of someone named Scott. For example:

Lincoln’s Assassin Got Away Scott Free (misspelled headline at YouTube)

‘American Idol’ recap: Getting off Scott-free (The reference is to a contestant named Scott MacIntyre.)

The lingering association of scot-free with Dred Scott is probably owing to vague recollections of high school history: a man named Scott wanted to be free. To refresh your memory, here’s a recap of what the Dred Scott Decision was about:

In 1846, Dred Scott, then 47 years old, sued the Missouri state government on behalf of his wife, two daughters, and himself; the suit contended that they were being illegally held in slavery.

Scott was born into slavery in Alabama. When he was about 30, he was sold to an Army doctor in Missouri. During the following years, Scott married, fathered two daughters, and lived at different times in the free states of Illinois and Wisconsin. Scott’s lawsuit contended that residence in a free state conferred freedom. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court where, in 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote the majority opinion: the Scotts were property and property rights were protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.

Although Dred Scott lost his case, he did not die in slavery. His owner’s widow married an abolitionist who returned the family to Scott’s original owner. The former slave owner had since moved to Missouri and become an abolitionist; he freed Scott, his wife, and their two daughters. Dred Scott died of tuberculosis after enjoying only seventeen months of freedom. His wife Harriet survived him by eighteen years.

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3 Responses to “Scot-free”

  • D.A.W.

    So, “scot-free” does not have anything to do with the Scots, a race of people who have been well-known for their thriftiness in a harsh land. Of course, the ultimate in thriftiness is “free”. The Scots have long made meals out of ingredients that do not cost very much – a necessity for a country that does not produce abundant food like England, France, and Belgium do.

    Scots not only lived in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but they settled in harsh parts of New Zealand, Australia, and North America, such as in Appalachia.
    For just an example, Scots settled in a part of the South Island of New Zealand, which is often rainy and cold, and they named their primary town Dunedin for the town of Dunedin in Scotland.
    There is also a Dunedin on the west coast of Florida (near Clearwater and St. Petersburg), but the weather there is mild and pleasant for most of the year. Also, that area is rarely hit by hurricanes.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    Also scot-free has nothing to do with scotch which is a drink and has been well known for its alcohol content and lack of ability to perform like bourbon with mixers. The best kind of freedom is that freedom you get when scotch is cheap and plentiful in which case no one cares about the bad weather. They also have bad weather in Seattle which is not in Scotland but does have scotch yet is better known for coffee which is not alcohol. Scotch is also a kind of whisky as in moonshine whisky. The moon can be seen from Scotland at certain times of the year. There is more but it involves very precise engineering and you wouldn’t understand.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Venqax, you have not only been drinking too much scotch, but you have been smoking too much weed at the same time.

    It is incredible that when someone praises the Scots for their thriftiness, determination, and toughness, then you have to imagine some way to criticize and complain about them.
    It is worse: you want to puke on the Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, and so forth.
    You just do not have any self-restraint, and very little ability to learn anything new, either.

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