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What Soes It Mean to get off "Scot-Free"?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Getting off scot-free refers to someone getting away without payment, either monetary or otherwise. In fact in modern usage, it often refers to suspects who are not convicted of a crime. If a person feels that the suspect should have been convicted, he might say, “That guy is getting off scot-free.”

Often the term is confused with the frugality that is occasionally attributed to the Scottish. Actually, the term scot predates old Gaelic that would have been spoken by the Scots. In fact the word has its origins in Scandinavian language and probably descends to the English language via Anglo-Saxon.

Scot literally translates to payment. Thus getting off scot-free is not having to pay the payment, or is payment free. In medieval England, occasionally people paid a tax called a scot that would have been used to fund relief programs for the exceptionally poor, not that such relief programs were many.

The scot one paid was also called a lot, shorted for allotted share of the payment. The two terms naturally married, producing one word for both payment and share. If a person could avoid making a payment in some way, he was getting off scot-free.

Now a scot could stand for any type of payment, and is often used when discussing paying a tab at the bar. Each person drinking owes a scot, a portion of a shared tab. A person who doesn’t pay his scot is getting off scot-free.

Getting off scot-free implies evasion, purposeful or otherwise of the dues one is supposed to pay. It is frequently an annoyance to others if people duck out of paying what everyone else must pay. This is especially the case if the scot of a bar tab is avoided, since everyone else will have to pay extra to make up for the person getting off scot-free.

It is good to know that a term in frequent usage is not in fact a racial slur intended to insult the Scottish. Many terms in frequent usage do have their origins in language that deliberately insults race or gender of others. Fortunately, scot-free is free of this taint.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Burlap — On Oct 20, 2010

Getting "scot-free" can be a very misleading term as it implies that the guild of the subject is inherent in the statement. In my personal opinion the term is very offensive. Somebody that you got off Scott free is like telling somebody that you committed a personal offense to someone else. It's wrong and you should do it.

If this kind of mentality that's wrong with our society today. People think that they can get away without paying for something that they have taken is the kind of values and principles that will destroy our free market economy. As soon as the value for something is lost in people's minds and no longer is it a viable good in our economy.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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