The Meaning of Scot-Free

When I was recently editing some copy with the phrase "Scot-free" in it, I immediately started to wonder about the meaning of the term. My first reaction was here we go again - this is clearly a reference to Scottish people being cheap.

Just yesterday I drove past a rather basic looking hotel in Virginia Beach called the Mac Thrift Inn . Its sign featured a skinny boned Scotsman who was clearly too cheap to afford underpants under his kilt. These old stereotypes endure but is there anything to them?

Interestingly enough, the phrase "Scot-free" has nothing to do with Scotsmen. There's a perception in America that this phrase is linked to the famous case of Dredd Scott.

Scott was a black slave who was born in Virginia in 1799. In a number of high profile court cases he sought to win his freedom before he was made a free man by his owners the Blow family. In fact, the phrase has nothing to do with Dredd Scott or Scotsmen.

In reality the phrase is derived from the Scandinavian word "skat" which is a phrase for tax or payment that migrated to Britain and turned into scot. It was levied as early as the 10th Century as a form of municipal poor relief. It was later used to describe a variety of taxes. In fact, the term scot-free means getting away without paying your taxes.

It's interesting how misinformation gathers pace, though. Like the stereotypes of Scottish people being mean. Although Scotland gave us a number of sayings about saving pennies, Scotland apparently now gives more money to charity than the rest of the United Kingdom.

History can commonly distort facts and these distortions are then taken for granted. Take, for example, the claim that the disturbed painter Van Gogh cut off his ear. Recently, a new book claimed he may have made up the story to protect his friend the painter Paul Gauguin, a keen fencer, who loped of Van Gogh's ear during a heated argument.

This is not so say Van Gogh was a more stable bunny than history has hitheto given him credit. Nobody is disputing the fact he then presented his severed ear to a prostitute who then fainted. What a charmer.


  1. Interesting, I've a Scottish background, and never looked at it that way, or imagined that anyone would. We watch that origin of words on, it it the history channel too. Good stuff. As for Van Gogh, he was crazy and creative, and that probably says it all.


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