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Scot-free vs. scot free

November 20, 2017 Editing Tags: , , , , , ,

Let’s get technical: scot-free

The Saxons had a fascinating habit of invading people groups and assimilating words and phrases, such as scot-free, into their lexicon without much fanfare. They came, they conquered, they learned new words. As a result, today’s English language offers fascinating opportunities for studying word roots.

Unsuspecting writers, even native-born English speakers, trip over this complex language all the time. So much spelling depends on knowing whether a word has Latin or Celtic roots or something else entirely. As an editor, I have to double check spelling and usage of minor phrases all the time.

What scot-free is not

I suppose we all have some idea what scot-free means: the idea of getting away with a crime without a penalty. Used in a thought I’ve just had today while writing my murder mystery: “My villain is sympathetic, and I feel sorry for her. But I can’t just let her get off scot-free, or where is the reader’s sense of justice?”
But maybe we are a little more confused about where the expression came from, which leads to variations in the way we try to spell it. I’ve seen Scot-free, Scotch-free or scotchfree, and Scott-free. But while each of these is plausible, none is quite right.
Scot, the name given ancestral residents of Scotland, is a Latin derived word. Surprisingly (to me), Scotland has nothing to do with it.
Scotch is simply an outdated descriptor of all things Scottish. It’s just wrong, don’t ever use it unless you need a piece of tape or a specific type of spirit in your hot toddy.
And for the record, scot-free also has nothing to do with the Dred Scott decision of 1857 in which an American slave unsuccessfully sued his owner for his liberty.

Then what does scot-free really mean?

This expression comes from Scandinavian roots, and refers to tax. You can see it in modern Swedish and Norwegian (skatt), Danish (skat), and Icelandic (skattur). In medieval times, a scot was any tax, penalty, or fine that a person might owe.
Thus, the proper usage is four letters, s-c-o-t. No capital letters because it is not a proper noun. And usually a hyphen between the two, because it is a single idea. We are not exactly describing a person being free as much as we are describing their state of being penalty-free. But based on common usage, you will still be correct if you leave the hyphen out. I wouldn’t change it in a fiction manuscript, but I might question it in a dissertation, for example.
So now you know.

One more thing

Here’s a gem from the Oxford Dictionary blog I uncovered in the course of my research:

“Scot-free is the most common contemporary idiom involving the word scot, but it has historically been used in many other phrases as well. Scot and lot referred to local or municipal taxes; by extension, it came to be used as an adjective to designate a man who paid such taxes and hence was eligible to vote or (more generally) was respectable: ‘May we not regret that potwallopers, and scot and lot men, and freemen then lost their privilege?’ (1865 Liverpool Mercury 12 Oct.). In the context of British politics, scot and lot also referred to a system of voting which restricted the franchise to men who paid ‘scot and lot.’”

Now that we have figured out scot-free, I suddenly want to know: what the heck is a potwalloper?