Scot-Free

Mus­ings are thoughts, the thought­ful kind. For the pur­pose of th­ese ar­ti­cles, a-mus­ings are thoughts that might amuse, en­ter­tain and even en­lighten.

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Michael Walker

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 scot­free?

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.

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