Research: MLP: Facts behind taxing phrases

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Feeling a little poorer today? Odds are each April 15 nets a bigger payment or smaller refund than the average American hoped for.

Life’s tribulations make good fodder for pithy sayings. Mrs. Language Person shared four phrases related (or not) to taxes which persist today. Naturally, the Snitty Old Biddy also had to point out how we’ve botched them up.

Scot-free. Not the commonly misspelled “scott” free (and variant, “scotch” free), to go or get off scot-free means to get away with something. The commonly presumed story of its origin is wrong, but here goes:

Dred Scott was a Virginia-born slave whose infamous 1857 Supreme Court case determined that slaves residing in a free state were not thus freed, and that slaves could never become citizens. Scott’s story is still believed to be the origin of the misnomer “scott free” (Dred Scott was later freed by his “owners”).

Actually, the phrase is much older. “Skat” is Scandinavian for tax, a word which migrated to Britain and mutated into “scot.” A scot was a redistributive tax, levied as early the 10th century to help England’s poorest.

Later, scot taxes took other forms, such as the church scot and soul scot (mortuary fee). So whatever the tax, getting off scot-free simply refers to not paying taxes.

A nice fantasy.

Brass tacks. Again, not the misspelled “brass tax,” getting down to brass tacks means getting to the basic facts or reality.

While its derivation is uncertain, it appeared in the Texas newspaper The Tri-Weekly Telegraph in January 1863:

“When you come down to ‘brass tacks’ — if we may be allowed the expression — everybody is governed by selfishness.”

Brass tacks are real. Picture those round-headed brass nails on sofas and chairs, also common in Tudor England. That’s centuries earlier, but backers of this explanation say that to reupholster, removing the tacks and fabric gets down to the basic furniture frame.

That sounds backward, as the tacks come first, not last (i.e., getting down to).

A better explanation is from haberdashery (men’s clothing and accessories). Around the same time as the newspaper reference, cloth was measured between brass tacks set in a shop counter. Maybe getting down to those brass tacks referred to the building blocks of apparel.

Death and taxes. This reference to the Founding Father’s famous quotation is legitimate, if not original:

“Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” —?Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, 1789.

However, two authors beat him to it:

“Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believ’d.” — From “The Political History of the Devil” by Daniel Defoe, 1726.

“’Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes.” — From “The Cobbler of Preston” by Christopher Bullock, 1716.

Daylight robbery. Meaning blatant overcharging, “daylight robbery” isn’t about breaking and entering. More like unabashed, obviously unfair dealing.

Like scot-free, this phrase probably has a legitimate tax connection. In the late 17th century, English monarch William III needed money, so he introduced the despised window tax. Yes, it really was a tax levied on all windows (or window-like openings) of a property. As you can imagine, rich people paid the most.

Perceived as taxing light and air, the window tax infuriated influential Englishmen. Many just avoided paying it, covering up windows with bricks and painting those trompes l’oeil (fake window scenes).

Windows let in light. So, as the story goes, they were “robbed” of their daylight.

Here’s another dark thought: Did you ever notice that the pairing of “the” and “IRS” spells “THEIRS?”


Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at

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