Here’s a wheels-within-wheels eggcorn, or even an eggcorns-within- eggcorns eggcorn.
The standard form of the phrase is ‘to get off scot-free’:
Stone believes the two rig supervisors should be prosecuted, but he also thinks BP’s senior leaders have got away scot-free.
And here’s an example with the eggcorned version:
Every school child, and 99.999999999999% of the rest of us know the name of the ONLY country to commit nuclear genocide on innocent civilians and get away scotch-free.
Q: Is it scot free, scotfree or scot-free?
Dictionaries hyphenate it (Oxford Online, Collins, Cambridge, Merriam-Webster).
At the end of this post there are figures showing the relative frequency of this eggcorn. Meanwhile, let’s delve into scot-free’s backstory.
Q: Scot-free has got something to do with Scotland, Scots, Scottish, hasn’t it?
Nope, absolutely nothing, zilch, diddly squat, nada. It has nothing to do with the nationality, the language or the drink.
(Nor does it have anything to do with the American slave Dred Scott.)
Q: Oh, really!?! So, what is that scot bit, then?
It’s an archaic word for a form of tax. So being ‘scot-free’ meant not having to pay scot, that tax, and then, more generally, not having to pay anything for whatever it might be.
(More specifically, the OED defines scot as ‘A tax or tribute paid by a feudal tenant to his or her lord or ruler in proportion to ability to pay’.)
Q: OK. But what has that got to do with the modern meaning of ‘without punishment or harm’?
As so often happens, people have extended the literal meaning to something more metaphorical and less specific (known by language geeks like me as ‘semantic broadening’).
As just mentioned, scot was a tax, and scot-free also once meant not liable for tax, and then later, more generally, ‘not liable to pay anything’. In parallel, it came to mean ‘escaping punishment, harm, or injury’. Here’s the earliest example in the OED entry (3rd edn., June 2011) of that extended meaning.
Is there eny grett differynge Bitwene theft and tythe gaderynge..? Uery litell,..Savynge that theves are corrected, And tythe gaderers go scott fre.
1528 Rede me & be nott Wrothe sig. H1 (a tract by reformers condemning the abuses of the Catholic Church)
[Is there any great difference between theft and tithe gathering? Very little,..except that thieves are punished, and tithe gatherers go scot-free.]
And here’s a much later example with the financial meaning still very much alive and kicking.
It was therefore thought very unjust by the Legislature, that all others be oblig’d to pay, and those Towns go Scot-free.
1734, London Daily Post, 27 Nov.
Q: Is scotch-free a recent eggcorn?
Well, from the eggcorn database, which records it from as recently as 2007, you might be forgiven for supposing so.
However, the Corpus of Historical American has an example from 1960; and while the earliest OED citation is the 1528 one shown above, the second citation has scotchfree, suggesting that the association with Scotland was made very early on. In other words, the eggcorn goes back at least to the mid-16th century. Perhaps it should be spelled eggkorne in honour.
Daniell scaped scotchfree by Gods prouidence.
1567, J. Maplet Greene Forest f. 93
(Note that scaped for escaped, as in scapegoat.)
If you’re enjoying this blog, and finding it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!
Q: Is it true that scot-free was once shot-free?
Correct. That’s how Shakespeare put it into Falstaff’s mouth in Henry IV, Pt. 1 v. iii. 30.
Q: Now I’m totally confuseddotcom. What’s the link between scot-free and shot-free, then?
Well, here’s the next wheel or twist. That scot itself is probably a variant of shot, with the same meaning, influenced by Scandinavian skot. However, that shot doesn’t appear in the OED’s records in its own right until 1475:
On cast down her schott and went her wey. Gossip, quod Elenore, what dyd she paye? Not but a peny.
c1475 Songs & Carols (Percy Soc.) 94
Here shot means ‘The charge, reckoning, amount due or to be paid, esp. at a tavern or for entertainment; a or one’s share in such payment. Now only colloq. to stand shot’ (according to the unrevised OED entry).
Scott used it with that meaning:
Are you to stand shot to all this good liquor?
1821, Scott, Kenilworth II. vii. 184
Q: Does anyone still use scot-free in its original meaning?
You mean, ‘not having to pay (tax)’? The OED marks it as ‘rare’, and presents as its most recent citation one from 1921:
The common laborer does not know that that act [on taxation] was passed. He is scot free at 40 cents an hour.
Internal-revenue Hearings before Comm. on Finance (U.S. Senate, 67th Congr., 1st Sess.) 384
But a 1992 citation from Ngrams seems also to refer to this meaning:
Everything will be scotch free, as they say, and McFillen assures me there will be a good fiddle in the expenses if I work my loaf.
Celebrated Letters, John B. Keane.
Q: But to qualify as an eggcorn, doesn’t there have to be a plausible explanation meaningwise of why people use the phrase in the eggcorned version?
That’s right. And the eggcorn database records an ingenious (post)-rationalization of the modern eggcorn, which I’ll quote in full here:
I was watching Big Brother 8 when a ditzy girl said she got off “scotch free.” Well if you think of the powers of the product Scotchguard that protects fabrics from staining thus allowing crap to easily flow off and not stick. Same idea as the current usage of the phrase getting off “scot free,” no?
That’s a similar image to the one that leads to Teflon man, for someone to whom no ‘dirt’ ever sticks.
Q: How common is the eggcorn?
Not very, actually.
Trawling Ngrams, doesn’t help much, because, for example, what look like nineteenth-century references turn out to be references to the Scotch Free Church, generally known as the Scottish Free Church (the use of ‘Scotch’ reflecting an earlier use). The earliest genuine one I’ve tracked down on Ngrams is from a 1992 novel: “The two young men, Dindial and Mascal, had gotten away scotch free.” (But see the earlier discussion.)
The figures below are from the November 2017 release of the Oxford English Corpus, the Corpus of Web-based English and the Corpus of Contemporary American English. As can be seen at a glance, the eggcorn is very much a minority tendency.