Home Beer The term “scot free” is related to beer and you didn’t even know it

The term “scot free” is related to beer and you didn’t even know it

How a 13th Century beer tax influenced the popular phrase.


Beer, as a beverage that’s been an indelible part of human culture for at least 4,000 years, has impacted the way we drink, the way we socialize—even the way we talk. Take, for instance, the phrase “scot free.” Today we interpret it to mean that a person has gotten away with something while avoiding punishment; alleged criminals who avoid prosecution are often said to have gotten off scot free. But the people of 13th Century England had very different definition of the phrase.

According to “The Oxford Companion to Beer,” the British government levied a tax known as a “scot” on ale houses in the 1200s, purportedly to combat drunkenness. (The word has nothing to do with the people of Scotland, but is rather related to older Scandinavian words skat or skatt, which themselves refer to a tax or payment of some type.) There was a catch, however: The tax applied only to houses in urban areas or on open, cultivated land. At the time, much of England was covered in thick forests, so crafty brewers set up ale houses within the woods and out of the tax man’s reach. The beer sold here was called, cheekily, “scot ale,” and customers were said to drink “scot free.”

Other sources tell it slightly differently (the phrase emerged long ago and we’ve sipped a lot of beer since then, you see). The 1889 tome “The Curiosities of Ale & Beer: An Entertaining History” describes “scot-ale” as a meeting set up for the purpose of drinking ale—a beer tasting, basically—whose name was derived from the fact that drinkers divided the cost of the party among each other. As with the definition above, the king and lords of the land tried to put the kibosh on these beer parties, so revelers held their scot-ales in the lawless forests, where they were scot free indeed.


Zach Fowle is DRAFT's beer editor. Reach him at zach@draftmag.com.

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