Getting off Scot-free

Ever wondered what was so free about Scots, anyway? If escaping over the border into Scot-land exempted you from punishments?
Or, having learnt that the Old English “sc” makes “sh” sounds, perhaps you wondered if in fact those getting off ‘scot-free’ had escaped bowfire somehow?

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The etymological wonders of the English language await you. Scot is in fact a fee, tax or imposition. It appears as an Old English term (apparently derived from a Germanic root word, which gives us ON skot and OF escot); in fact, the idiom scot-fre(o) occurs five times in the Old English Corpus online database. I wonder how many English language idioms have survied that long or longer?

The Middle English ‘scot’, according to the OED online, shows more Scandinavian influence than Anglo-Saxon- which is how we’re now pronouncing ‘scot’ rather than ‘shot’.

Some of the scots which you could be charged, according to the various law codes in Cotton Nero A.i, include:

*Church-scot, which, according to the OED, is

in OE. times a custom of corn collected on St. Martin’s day; extended to other contributions in kind and money made for the support of the clergy, or demanded as a traditional ecclesiastical due

* Soul-scot- a mortuary tax, the price you pay to be buried on consecrated ground.

*Romscot, or ‘Peter’s Pence’- an annual household tax, or hearth-penny, sent to the papal see in Rome.

All of these are attested in Middle English sources on the OED as well as Old. Exactly when any of them originated is a fuzzy question, because consientious characters like the Archbishop Wulfstan, when compiling collections of laws (like Cotton Nero A.i), could retro-actively adapt past law to current, inserting calls for plough-alms and Peter’s Pence in passages which already called for tithes and church-scot, for example. Wormald, in his ‘Making of English Law’, uses the calls for scots in different versions of individual codes to help map out a picture of their development. Invariably, those codes in Wulfstanian texts show greatest evidence of adaptation- even the codes he originally wrote evidence later developments; for example, AEthelred’s codes were being retro-actively adapted as Wulfstan worked on Cnut’s comprehensive codes.

How does ‘scotfre(o)’, ie, free of taxes, become ‘scot free’, free from punishment or sanction? The OED doesn’t have a suggestion regarding the semantic shift- it could be a modern shift, as the word ‘scot’ lost meaning. I wonder, though, if perhaps somewhere along the line ‘scot’, taxes, picked up a little semantic contamination from ‘weregild’, fines levied for crimes against individual men according to status?

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4 Responses to “Getting off Scot-free”

  1. B. Hawk Says:

    Wonderful thoughts! It’s nice to have others around who are so keen to delve into philological fancy and discussion.

  2. highlyeccentric Says:

    Ph-thing is something i cannot spell right now, but nevertheless it is my favourite thing to fancify about, regardless of my sobriety levels and/or how late at night it is in Australia right now 🙂

  3. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Now there you are, shows what I know. I knew that `scot’ was a tax, but for some reason I thought `scot-free’ was descended not from that but from `scotch’, as in a wound like how that Shakespeare fella uses it, and thus equivalent to unharmed. But the OED agrees with you, and, furthermore, damningly tells me:

    ¶b. ? Mis-used for: Without inflicting damage.

    So that’s me told. Thankyou for your learnings…

  4. highlyeccentric Says:

    My learnings and my googlings, together they make me formidable…

    glad to correct your idiomatic misapprehensions 🙂


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