At the wedding of our son to our daughter-in-law to be, one of his employees, his right-hand man and best friend, held the traditional best man’s speech, part of which entails ‘roasting’ the bride and groom. Johann, the Swedish best man, took the opportunity to tell the assembled crowd that our newly-confirmed daughter-in-law had just married the stingiest man on earth. What he meant, of course, was that our son was extremely careful about balancing the budget and not spending more money than he had. Well, once hitched to our daughter-in-law’s wagon, all his best intentions flew out of the window, but that’s a story for another day.
All these memories were drifting through my mind the other day when my thoughts inevitably turned to the vexatious question regarding how much Scottish blood flows through our prime minister’s veins.
But allow me, Dear Reader, a linguistic, or perhaps etymological digression if I may. Inevitably you will, by now, have begun to wonder why the Scots have such a reputation for stinginess despite the provable fact (not, please note, a President Trump ‘alternative fact’) that surveys show that Scots give to charity more per head than any other part of the, as yet, still-united Kingdom.
Another, more positive adjective for stingy is frugal – a word that conveys quite a different meaning. Now today’s question is, naturally, about our relatively new prime minister. Is he stingy or is he frugal? And if he continues to withhold essential funds from his ministers’ projects will he get off scot-free?
Clearly, another digression is called for. To ‘get off scot-free’ means, as you well know Dear Reader, ‘to get away with something without being punished’, and the assumption since the 1500s has been that this is a reference to the country or people of Scotland. However, the ‘scot’ in scot-free is an entirely different kettle of fish. (Isn’t that a lovely mix of metaphors?)
Scot, as in a Scottish person, derives from the post-classical Latin Scottus. The ‘scot’ of scot-free is related to words in Scandinavian languages such as skatt in modern Norwegian and Swedish, skat in Danish and skattur in Icelandic. All these words carry the meaning ‘tax’.
Scot-free seems to have first appeared in the 16th century meaning ‘not required to pay a scot (tax or fee)’ or ‘free of charge’. In 1792 John Wolcot wrote in his Odes of Condolence: ‘Scot-free the Poets drank and ate; They paid no taxes to the State!’
In 1860, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, ‘No reliance for bread and games on the government, no clanship, no patriarchal style of living by the revenues of a chief, no marrying-on, no system of clientship suits them; but every man must pay his scot.’
As late as 1921, in hearings before the US Senate Committee on Finance, it was reported, ‘The common laborer does not know that that act [on taxation] was passed. He is scot (tax) free at 40 cents an hour’.
However, and quite surprisingly, the phrase was used by Richardson in the modern sense of ‘without being punished’ as early as 1740 in his rather frisky novel Pamela where he wrote, ‘She should not, for all the Trouble she has cost you, go away scot-free.’
‘Rome-scot’ was an annual tax paid to the Holy See at Rome. ‘Soul-scot’ was money paid on behalf of a deceased person to their former church. ‘Scot-ale’ seems to have been in the 16th century a party that one was compelled to attend and pay a cover charge. No one got off scot-free.
Now the question is this: Will our new prime minister be able to lower VAT, implement his reforms, change society, encourage new enterprises, invest in social services, provide health care for all, create new employment, etc., etc., etc., and still get off scot-free?
Or will it be business as usual and will the general population be left holding the baby? Someone has to pay the piper’s tune. Hold the baby, pay the piper? Nah, those explanations will have to wait for another time.