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Next time you hear or use the expression "scot-free", don't think that it has anything to do with Scots language or Scot people.  I have always avoided using this expression because I didn't want to disparage a whole people.  But "scot-free" is such a useful phrase that I wished I could use it with a good conscience.  So finally I looked it up and found that it has a completely different derivation from that of the name of the language and the people.

(colloquial) Without consequences or penalties, to go free without payment.

From Middle English scotfre, from Old English scotfrēo (scot-free; exempt from royal tax or imposts), equivalent to scot (payment; contribution; fine) +‎ -free.



Money assessed or paid.

[Middle English, tax, partly from Old Norse skot and partly from Old French escot, of Germanic origin; see skeud- in Indo-European roots.]

(AH Dict. 2016 5th ed.)

Delving deeper into the Indo-European background of the "scot" of ("scot-free"):

scot (n.)

"royal tax," a term that survived in old law and in scot-free; late Old English, "municipal charges and taxes," also "a royal tax or contribution sometimes levied for support of local officers." This is from Old Norse skot "contribution," etymologically "a shooting, shot; a thing shot, a missile" (from PIE root *skeud- "to shoot, chase, throw"). The Old Norse verb form, skjota, has a secondary sense of "transfer to another; pay." It is related to Old English sceotan "to pay, contribute," Middle English scotten "to bear one's share of;" Dutch schot, German Schoß "tax, contribution."

Also via Old French escot "reckoning, payment" (Modern French écot "share"), and via Medieval Latin scotum, scottum, both from Germanic, as is Spanish ecote

From c. 1300 as "payment for food or drink at a social gathering," also figurative (late 12c.), a sense also in the Old French word. Hence scot-ale (n.) "a drinking party, probably compulsory, held by a sheriff, forester, bailiff, etc., for which a contribution was exacted" [Middle English Compendium], attested from late 12c., with ending as in bridal. "Scot implies a contribution toward some object to which others contributed equally" [Century Dictionary].


Do not say "scotch free".  That would be a malapropism.


Selected reading



  1. Laura Morland said,

    October 26, 2022 @ 5:12 pm

    I've never heard someone say "Scotch-free," but it shows up as a suggested Google search, so apparently it's a thing.

    Another mistaken etymology: according to, [s]ome people wrongly suppose this phrase alludes to Dred Scott, the American slave who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom.

    Up next: "Dutch treat"? (Does that phrase diss our Low-Country pals, or not?)

  2. S Frankel said,

    October 26, 2022 @ 5:34 pm

    Disappointed to learn that Scotland isn't the Land of Payments.

  3. MarkB said,

    October 26, 2022 @ 7:07 pm

    Regarding not wanting to be linguistically naughty: The Dutch are known for being tight with money. A Dutch couple told me (approvingly) of an old Dutch joke: did you know the Dutch invented copper wire? Two Dutchmen both grabbed a copper coin and pulled, and neither would let go. Netherlandophobic, or just a joke? Apparently, the Dutch see the humor in it.

  4. Seth said,

    October 26, 2022 @ 7:43 pm

    @ Laura Morland – I wonder when the confusion with Dred Scott arose. It sounds like it could be something similar to the very wrong idea that "picnic" came from a racial slur. There's an obscure DC superhero ("Mr. Miracle") who is an expert in escapes and has a civilian name of "Scott Free". While the name is obvious inspired by the expression, I wonder if he ever gets into a popular movie if people will think the expression came from the name.

  5. Oz said,

    October 26, 2022 @ 7:54 pm

    @Laura Morland
    In "", the first paragraph should answer your question.

  6. /df said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 4:40 am

    In the spirit of the Uxbridge English Dictionary

    *scotch-free: got away without any whisky

  7. knirirr said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 6:26 am

    I'd wondered about the etymology of this term after seeing a comment in Sir William Hope's "A Vindication of the True Art of Self-Defence", 1724. He says on page 170:

    "…even in a Crowd, or closs Battle; that altho' by it a True Sword-Man cannot keep himself Scart-Free, as we say…"

    The OED has an entry for "scart" as a scratch.

  8. Ralph J Hickok said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 7:29 am

    I'm not sure that "Dutch treat" arises from the notion of Dutch penury. "Dutch" is sometimes a synonym for false, as in "Dutch courage" (false courage created by alcohol) and "Dutch uncle" (an avuncular person who isn't really your uncle).

    Similarly, I think "Dutch treat" might mean a fake treat, in that neither party is being treated.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 9:33 am

    On the typical pejorativeness of English expressions of the form "Dutch NOUN," I will simply restate a comment I made in a thread some years ago (which also has comments from others on the phenomenon):

  10. Robert Coren said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 9:39 am

    I encountered "scot" (in the sense of money owed) in a literary context when I was still child. I don't think I ever thought it had anything to do with Scotland.

    @Ralph J Hickok: I think you're right about "Dutch", and I assume it dates to a period when the British and the Dutch were major rivals in international trade and colonization. I also have the impression the a "Dutch uncle" isn't avuncular in the usual friendly-adviser sense, but rather implies an older man who treats a younger person with stern disapproval.

    Note that a "Dutch oven" is not an oven; I'm not sure what to make of "Dutch door", which is actually a door, but one divided horizontally into two sections that open and close independently.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 10:15 am

    And then there's "Dutch rub".

  12. Victor Mair said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 10:17 am

    Cf. "Florida man" meme.

  13. KeithB said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 10:20 am

    This many comments in and no one has mentioned "niggardly"?

  14. Victor Mair said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 10:21 am

    See also "Location Man".

  15. Joe said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 2:43 pm

    And there's the Dutch Reach.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 2:54 pm


    We've been trained not to use that word.

  17. maidhc said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 6:53 pm

    I thought I might attempt to formulate a joke along the lines of "butterscotch" being a kind of dairy tax, but before I did so I decided to look up the origin of the word itself. It turns out to be a bit of a mystery. It is first encountered in Doncaster, Yorkshire, in mid-Victorian times.

    The ever-helpful Wikipedia says

    Food historians have several theories regarding the name and origin of this confectionery, but none are conclusive. One explanation is the meaning "to cut or score" for the word "scotch", as the confection must be cut into pieces, or "scotched", before hardening. Another idea is that it came from the adjective Scotch, indicating association with Scotland. It is also possible that the "scotch" part of its name was derived from the word "scorch".

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 4:46 am

    The OED confus that the etymology of the "scotch" element is uncertain —

    Etymology: < butter n. + a second element of uncertain identity; perhaps Scotch adj., with reference to an actual or supposed Scottish origin (compare the variant butterscot); or perhaps scotch v., perhaps with reference to scoring into pieces when cooled.
    In the form butterscot apparently remodelled after Scot n.; in addition, sweet-scot and sugar-scot are both found in the source cited in quot. 1855 at sense A. 1 as names of the same confection.

    The suggestion that the second element shows scorch v. is probably less likely, on grounds both of form and that the ingredients are boiled but not burnt.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 4:47 am

    "confus" -> "concurs"

  20. jin defang said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 6:10 am

    Victor, you can't assume that people who take offense at scot-free will be assuaged when apprised of its etymology. Two decades ago, a politician was castigated, and never recovered from, using the word "niggardly," whose origins have nothing to do with race.

  21. bks said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 7:27 am

  22. Seth said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 12:10 pm

    @ knirirr I think he's making a "scart / scot" pun, especially per the clause "as we say". That last sounds like a verbal wink to me.

  23. Bloix said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 12:35 pm

    "Niggardly" is an unusual and unnecessary word, with many synonyms (stingy, parsimonious, tight-fisted, miserly, cheap, ungenerous, crabbed, mean, inadequate, etc..), and its sound and spelling are so close to a truly offensive word that it cannot fail to prompt any American native speaker, at least, to recoil slightly whenever it's used. It's a good idea to avoid words and phrases that throw up roadblocks to effective communication. "Niggardly" is a prime example of such a word.

  24. Bloix said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 12:51 pm

    Another example – rapeseed oil is the oil of the seed of the rape plant, a member of the cabbage family. It's the third-largest commercially sold cooking and vegetable oil in the world.
    The word rape in this context comes from the Latin word for turnip, rapa.
    Some years ago, Canadian plant breeders developed a strain of rapeseed that is low in a certain acid thought to be unhealthy, and named this variety Canola (Canadian oil, low acid). Nowadays, virtually all rapeseed cooking oil is marketed as canola oil. If you're not a botanist or agronomist there's almost no reason to refer to rapeseed any more, and isn't that a good thing?

  25. David Marjanović said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 3:57 pm

    German Schoß "tax, contribution."

    I'm a well-read native speaker and didn't know that one. I guess it's in Grimm's dictionary (from the beginning of the 19th century); lots of etymologists treat its contents as modern Standard German, but amazingly many of the words are obsolete.

    Also, judging from the cognates, it probably has a short vowel, so it would be written Schoss today; there is a word Schoß, with a long vowel, which means "lap".

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 4:26 pm

    "Nowadays, virtually all rapeseed cooking oil is marketed as canola oil" — possibly in the United States and/or Canada. In the United Kingdom it is universally referred to as rapeseed oil, and no-one seems the least concerned.

    " If you're not a botanist or agronomist there's almost no reason to refer to rapeseed any more, and isn't that a good thing?" — not as far as I am concerned. Phasing out a perfectly respectable word simply because some might take offence at it is not a good thing at all. And yes, I would defend the use of "niggardly" on exactly the same grounds.

  27. Steve Griffin said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 9:42 pm

    Let's remember that this entire thread of etymological analysis is born of the desire of some people to do whatever they can to make other people look like racists.

  28. Philip Anderson said,

    October 29, 2022 @ 5:41 am

    @Steve Griffin
    That’s not how I read the original post. While the writer mistakenly associated the phrase with the Scots, there are no accusations of racism against those who use it. I have no problem with that or niggardly, although it’s not in my active vocabulary; however, I personally avoid some phrases e.g. ‘to welsh’ (on a bet) of unknown origin, but without criticising others’ usage.
    Like Philip Taylor, I can’t see why anyone would object to rapeseed as a word, except for prudish Victorians trying to deny an ugly activity.

  29. Kaleberg said,

    October 30, 2022 @ 8:04 pm

    If you've ever made butterscotch from scratch, you'd go for the scorch etymology. The idea is to heat the ingredients, including butter and sugar, enough to caramelize them but not so much as to burn them. We use a laboratory hotplate to get just the right temperature, but if you use a less accurate method, like an ordinary stove, there is only a brief interval between when the mix starts browning and starts turning black. Technically, what you want to do is scorch the mix, not burn it. The black stuff tastes awful, and there is nothing you can do but start over.

    Scotch Tape used to have a little Scottish stereotype guy with a plaid tam on its packaging along with the motto mending is better than ending. The story is that the founder of what is now 3M was known for his parsimony. Supposedly, the abrasive coated tape he sold only had its active face half covered with the abrasive. That was sufficient for use in most machinery, but unusual enough to be remarkable.

    Also, how about "jewing" someone down, haggling, or hondeling as some Jews would put it, to get a better price?

  30. knirirr said,

    October 31, 2022 @ 8:59 am

    @seth that could well be the case, though I don't know. It's the only reference I've ever seen along those lines.

  31. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    November 1, 2022 @ 1:42 am

    I thought scutage might be related to scot-free, but apparently not, even though scutage was a fine paid in lieu of military service in feudal periods in England:

    From Middle English scutage, from Medieval Latin scutagium, from Latin scutum (“shield”).

    IPA(key): /ˈskjuːtɪdʒ/
    scutage (countable and uncountable, plural scutages)

    (historical) A tax, paid in lieu of military service, that was a significant source of revenue in England in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. quotations ▼synonym ▲
    Synonym: escuage

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