Have you ever felt the elation of ‘getting off scot-free’? It’s tempting to imagine that the origin of this idiom has something to do with the Scottish. The facts, however, suggest otherwise.
To ‘get off scot-free’ means to get away with something for which you should’ve been punished. In English, the word Scot refers to a native or inhabitant of Scotland, so it makes sense to think that this idiom relates to that country or its people. In fact, this has been the common belief ever since the 16th century, when the alternative spelling ‘scotch-free’ was first used. However, the Scots have nothing to do with this phrase.
Of Germanic origin, scot-free arose in the 16th century as an alternate term of the earlier shot-free. In Medieval England, the scot or shot was a compulsory lax levied on inhabitants of a village or town. The amount paid was calculated in proportion to the size of property held. Only a small few avoided paying the scot because their houses were built on unfortunate land (either on hills where no water was available or in areas where flooding was common). These people were known to live scot-free, avoiding their fiscal duty. And so the term came to describe those who avoided responsibility.
And so, this idiom does not come from the Scottish, but the English.
What do you think of this interpretation of scot-free? Have you heard of another that’s also feasible?