The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “scot free” a slur on Scots?

Q: What’s the origin of “scot free”? Is it an insult to people from Scotland?

A: Contrary to what you may think, “scot free” has nothing to do with Scotland or the Scots.

The word “scot” in the expression dates back to the 1200s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and means money (or a tax) assessed against someone, or somebody’s fair share of an expense (for instance, a bill for drinking or entertainment). It’s derived in part from an Old Norse word, skot, and an Old French word, escot.

The expression was around in medieval times, when towns levied taxes in proportional shares for things like a poor fund. The tax was called a “scot,” and somebody who wriggled out of paying it got off “scot free.”

Nowadays, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, to get off “scot free” can mean either to avoid paying for something or to escape punishment.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.