• scot-free •
skaht-free • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Without incurring any penalty or punishment. 2. Tax-exempt.
Notes: Today's Good Word is one of those 'defective' adjective-adverbs, as I have called them, that may be used in the predicate only. It cannot be used prenominally ('
a scot-free tax-payer'), nor may we form a noun from it ( scot-freedom or scot-freeness). It actually functions only as an adjective in such phrases as 'go scot-free' or 'escape scot-free', since the word does not tell HOW the person escaped, but his condition as he escaped. This use parallels phrases like, 'to escape uninjured' or 'to arrive sick'.
In Play: The first sense of this word has more currency today: "Aunt Henrietta got out of her speeding ticket scot-free when she told the arresting officer that he had scared her so much she peed in her pants." The sense of "tax-exempt" has drifted into the mists of late, but it is still available: "Poets and other artists drink and eat scot-free in Ireland; they pay no taxes to the state!"
Word History: Today's word has nothing to do with Scotland. In Old English it was scotfreo "shot-free, tax-free", combining scot "shot, state tax" (paralleling Old Norse skot "shot, tax") + freo "free", from freon "to free, to love". In Modern Norwegian and Swedish the Old Norse word has become skattefri "tax-exempt". Shot derives from PIE skeud- "to shoot, throw", but the Old Norse verb form, skjota, has a secondary sense of "pay", so we may presume all Germanic languages permitted this semantic shift seen in the Old English word above.
Freo comes from Proto-Indo-European pri- "to love". In the Germanic languages "to love" came to mean "to set free". We see the results of the original PIE word in English friend and Russian prijatel' "friend". (George Kovac and Eric Berntson not only get off scot-free for simultanrously submitting today's deceptive Good Word by e-mail and the Agora, but with this word of our gratitude.)