Common terms: scot-free

When I came across this definition, from the website Word of the Week, I figured other readers would be as surprised as I was to know it has nothing to do with Scots, or Scotch, at all, despite the common assumption otherwise. The term does pop up occasionally in law talk, usually in the derisive sense, as in “The scumbag got off scot-free.”  That sense, at least, makes some etymologic sense.

“scot-free (adj.) Old English scotfreo “exempt from royal tax,” from scot “royal tax,” from Old Norse skot “contribution,” literally “a shooting, shot; thing shot, missile,” from Proto-Indo-European *skeud- “to shoot, chase, throw” (see shoot (v.); the Old Norse verb form, skjota, has a secondary sense of “transfer to another; pay”) + freo (see free (adj.)). First element related to Old English sceotan “to pay, contribute,” Dutch schot, German Schoß “tax, contribution.” French écot “share” (Old French escot) is from Germanic. (thanks to etymonline.com)”

So now you know what I know, plus what you know, which makes you smarter.

9 thoughts on “Common terms: scot-free

  1. Fascinating. I read this blog pretty consistently even though I write historical fiction. This is something I could actually use. Actually some of the stupid criminal tricks would work too. People don’t seem to get smarter or dumber with time.

  2. Very interesting, but contrary to what we were told on a visit to Scotland last year. They said that “Scot free” referred to a verdict available to juries in Scotland that was not available in the rest of the UK. In addition to findings of “guilty” or “not guilty”, Scottish juries could declare charges “not proved”. This finding indictates a liklihood of guilt, but not enough evidence to convict–thus the defendant got off Scot free.

    • Carol, the “not proven” verdict is a feature in all British courts, and I believe it has its origin in English common law. (For a mystery connection, you may recall Rumpole railing against it in several stories, for the taint it leaves.) Sounds like a bit of tour guide inventiveness!

      • Actually, Leslie, after a bit of research, it appears that our tour guide was right. The “not proven” verdict is unique to Scotland in English-speaking countries. (Italy currently allows for it as one of their five verdict options.) The glossary of British legal terms lists verdict as meaning, “The finding of guilty or not guilty by a jury,” whereas the glossary of legal terms for Scotland’s Prosecution Service includes “not proven.” I could find no indication that “not proven” was ever used in England. Perhaps Rumpole was referring to trials held in Scotland (rather than the Bailey), or perhaps the author was mistaken.

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