“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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