Why Do People Get Off “Scot-Free”?

If you’ve ever seen someone get away with something to see only no consequences whatsoever (probably because they had a lot of money or something). Maybe you thought there was originally some guy named Scott who just got away with stuff and that’s where the phrase came from, and now you’re surprised that there’s only one “T” in it. Now that you’re thinking about it though, why do people get off scot-free?

A Case of Mistaken Etymology

You might think that the phrase “scot-free” refers to the Scottish people, given its similarity to the shortened “Scots.” Alternatively, you might have picked up that “scot-free” references Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)though now seeing “scot-free” on paper with only one “T” probably disabused you of that pretty quick. 

Quick history lesson, history does not look kindly upon Dred Scott v. Sandford, and for good reason. It’s widely considered one of the worst decisions made by the Supreme Court of the United States wherein they ruled that the American Constitution did not extend citizenship to Black Americans. The case was brought by Dred Scott, an enslaved man taken from Missouri to Illinois—this is important because slavery was legal in Missouri, but was illegal in the Wisconsin Territory where Scott and his family had been taken. When Scott was brought back to Missouri he sued on the grounds that, because he had been taken to a free territory, he was legally no longer an enslaved person. 

After appealing his way to the Supreme Court, the SCOTUS ruled 7-2 against Scott—holding that because he was not considered an American citizen he actually just couldn’t sue anyone period. This ruling was messy to say the least, violating the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution. Dred Scott v. Sandford is often used as an example of judicial activism, which is when courts make rulings based on the views of the judges (or justices if it’s the SCOTUS) rather than established legal precedent. It’s also widely considered to be one of the bigger factors in starting the American Civil War.

Also, just to rub salt in the wound, apparently the Supreme Court also misspelled the name “Sanford” and that’s why the case is named the way it is.  

It’s Actually About Taxes

Broadly, saying someone got off scot-free is pretty charged. We don’t say it when people are actually innocent, it’s typically applied to people who are obviously guilty yet escape any kind of real accountability. You know, like a younger sibling. Or the Sacklers. That doesn’t sound like it has much to do with the SCOTUS being bad at making decisions—or Scottish people.

So if the “scot” in “scot-free” doesn’t actually refer to the Scots, what does it actually refer to? Well we can turn to Old English and find that “scot” literally referred to taxes. So if you were snarkily thinking about rich people, you were more on the money than you might have originally thought. The Old English “scot” is derived from the Old Norse “skot,” which roughly refers to a “contribution.” 

When this was in use, “scot” referred to a “royal tax,” and those who managed to avoid paying that tax got off “scotfreo,” which as English evolved became “scot-free.” So it literally refers to one who is free of paying their taxes. 

Which uh… Actually disappointingly fitting in the 21st century too. 

Further Reading: Why Does Filing Your Taxes Suck in the US?

Since “scot” refers to taxes, see if you know your tax rates here.