Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Why We Say: Scot-Free to Skullduggery


Amazon.com: Dictionary of Word Origins: A History of the Words, Expressions  and Cliches We Use (9780806517131): Almond, Jordon: Books

As we move deeper into the “S” section of Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins, we travel into nefarious terminology and meanings.

Scot-Free: “And just like that I got off paying that paying scot-free.” Getting away with something, or not having to pay for something is a relief and often a goal, but it has nothing to do with Scotland. “Scot” comes from the Anglo-Saxon sceot which means “money put into a general fund” — a “tax.” The scot was a form of income tax, determined by what people could pay. If someone were “scot-free” it meant they were free from paying tax.

She-Bang: “The whole she-bang comes crashing down after that windstorm blew through our yard–yup, them chickens were surprised when their coop fell apart.” Referring to the “whole she-bang” usually means an entirety. Originally, the term came from the Irish name for a drinking place without a license, which is also known as a speakeasy, or a shebeen. It’s thought a drinker deep in his cups might offer to take on everyone or the “whole sheebeen.”

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Shilly-Shally: “Well, don’t shilly-shally. Are you coming or not?” Someone who cannot make up their mind might wrestle with self-questions as in “Shall I?” The weak form of “shall” would be “shill.”

Shindig: “Sounds like that party is going to be some shindig.” Rough parties can sometimes break out into fights and techniques of kicking and gouging, digging into someone’s shins might take place. A reference to a rowdy eventually moved to a general term for a party.

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Shirt Off One’s Back: “My brother-in-law is so generous he would give the shirt off his back to help out someone who needed some help.” In the days when men generally were attired in a coat, pants, and shirt, to give out your coat was considered a decent offer since the giver remained decently attired with their remaining shirt and pants. However, to give someone the shirt of their back was considered a truly generous offer. Today, someone might not willingly hand over all they can decently give, and to give the shirt off one’s back can mean giving over and above the request.

Shoddy: “My new shirt is shoddy–it came apart after three washings.” When cloth was woven some of the fluff or loose fibers was shed. Which refers to the dialectal word “shode” meaning to separate. The fluff was gathered to make new weavings, but being weak in strength the clothes quickly fell apart.

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Skin of One’s Teeth. “He got out of that accident by the skin of his teeth.” This is a translation from the Book of Job in which it refers to how a person has no skin on their teeth, and so to get by the skin of one’s teeth is to indicate there wasn’t any margin at all.

Skinflint: “Oh, my Uncle Fred is such a skinflint in how he never spends more than he has to when we go out shopping.” Back in the day flint was used to make fire. After repeated use these pieces of rock would become smaller and smaller until hardly much was left. Someone wanting to save money on buying more flint would use the bits of rock or “skin,” the tiny pieces.

Skullduggery: “Watch out for that rough group of fellows walking down by the warehouse district. They could be getting into all kinds of skullduggery.” Grave robbing was once an active criminal activity and those who dug of the bones for various nefarious reasons were known as “skull diggers.” Over time any criminal activity would be known as “skullduggery.”

Next time we continue tromping through more “S” selections. Stay tuned…

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8 thoughts on “Why We Say: Scot-Free to Skullduggery

  1. Interesting. I had that book at one time and learned quite great. Savvy?
    Just had to include that one

  2. Not sure I’m on board with ‘shindig,’ but fun nonetheless.

  3. Another fun post for word lovers.

  4. I love the ghoulishness of skullduggery, but I also had to laugh at how scot-free is usually assosciated with Scotland for the obvious stereotype. Being English I prefer to ignore the real definition for the sake of traditional rivalry.

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