While describing his former lawyer Michael Cohen and Cohen’s role in Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, Trump tweeted, “He makes up stories to get a GREAT & ALREADY reduced deal for himself, and get….his wife and father-in-law (who has the money?) off Scott Free.”
Of course, the president likely did not mean to refer to a person named Scott Free (which incidentally is the real name of DC Comics superhero Mister Miracle). It appears Trump intended to say “scot-free,” which means to escape without facing punishment, penalty, harm or other consequence.
But why do we say “scot-free” anyway?
It’s a common misconception that the phrase stems from the mid-19th century Dred Scott v. Sandford case or has something to do with Scottish people or scotch. The real answer dates back at least 500 years.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an archaic definition of “scot” is “a tax or tribute paid by a feudal tenant to his or her lord or ruler in proportion to ability to pay; a similar tax paid to a sheriff or bailiff.” Examples of old “scots” include soulscots (which were paid to clergy or church from the estate of a deceased person), Rome-scots (paid to the papacy in pre-Reformation days) and scot-ales (basically mandatory parties with mandatory cover charges).
So in medieval days, to get away scot-free would mean not having to pay taxes or fees, or even at times, the broader definition that we still use today of simply getting away with something without penalty. Early recorded uses of scot-free go back to 1528 and range from condemnations of the Catholic Church to pieces of literature.
Merriam-Webster traces the word “scot” in the sense of “money assessed or paid” back to the Old Norse “skot” and the word “shot,” which apparently had a similar meaning. In fact, Shakespeare used the phrase “shot-free” in “Henry IV, Part I.” (Meanwhile, “Scot,” as in someone from Scotland, reportedly derives from the Latin “Scotus.”)
So next time someone tries to tell you the phrase is spelled “Scott Free” or references Dred Scott’s bid for freedom, you can tell them that’s a bunch of covfefe.