In the suspense novel, Charley’s Web, by Canadian writer, Joy Fielding, one of the characters says, “As far as I could see ... he got off scot-free. What does that mean — scot-free?”
Fifteen pages later, Fielding’s protagonist, Charley Webb, answers the question. Charley says, “Scot-free is an expression that stems from a municipal tax going back to medieval times.”
Oxford’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable enlarges on Fielding, explaining that scot is an archaic term — Old English — for a payment that today we would call a tax. The OED adds to this: “(Scot-free means) Free from payment or ‘scot,’ tavern score, fine, etc.; exempt from injury, punishment, etc.; scatheless.” Scot, itself, is defined in the OED as a payment, contribution, or reckoning.
The related phrase, scot and lot (originally lot and scot) is a municipal tax levied as a means of paying municipal expenses. The original form of scot-free would actually have been lot and scot-free.
Scot, in this sense, bears absolutely no relationship to Scot, meaning someone from Scotland. Scot, the native of Scotland, is derived from the Late Latin, Scottus (plural, scottas). The ultimate origin of this word is unknown.
In ancient times, Scottas referred to people from Ireland, and further digging reveals Scots to be, “A Gaelic people that migrated from Ireland to Scotland around the late 5th century” (Cassell’s Dictionary of Names).
Another term involving the word, Scotland, puzzles many people. Why is the headquarters of London’s Metropolitan Police Force called Scotland Yard? Scotland Yard was originally found at the south-east corner of Charing Cross in London. It has never been located in Scotland.
The name comes from a palace that was once reserved for visiting Scottish kings, but the police department set up there in the early 19th century. Then, in 1891, New Scotland Yard was moved to the Embankment on the Thames. In 1967, Scotland Yard was relocated yet again, this time to a stark modern building behind the St. James Park Underground Station.
Despite all these moves, the name Scotland Yard has remained and, despite readily available information, most people have no clue as to the reason for Scotland Yard’s name.
A still more curious tem is Scotch Verdict. In Scotland, in law cases where evidence is insufficient for a jury to come to a conclusive decision, a verdict of “not proven” may be returned and the accused set free. This kind of ruling is called a Scotch Verdict and has been allowable in Scotland since 1912.
And we sometimes hear something like, “He soon scotched that idea.” The transitive verb to scotch, meaning to put an abrupt end to, is from the Middle English scocchen (to cut a notch), and originated in the Latin intensifier es, and the Old French coche (a notch). In fact, one meaning of to scotch is, “to cut or score; to scratch.”
Hopscotch, the children’s game, is from the same source and refers to a line drawn in the ground.