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Pithy tax sayings

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| April 18, 2023 1:00 AM

It’s here — the last day to send a check to Uncle Sam. When Your Mrs. Language Person is tempted to begrudge governments their share of her meager income, she plays the appreciation game: Beautiful parks, roads, firefighters, the mail, disaster relief, law enforcement … Admittedly, one does enjoy the benefits. But like any other taxpayer, writing that check is tantamount to pulling her thinning hairs out, one scraggly white strand at a time.

She just. Hates. To do it.

Citizens’ relationship with their government makes good fodder for pithy sayings. Your MLP noted four tax related phrases (well, at least allegedly related). Naturally, the Snitty Old Biddy must note how badly the poor old things have been misused, misattributed and, quite simply, botched up.

Scot-free. Not the commonly misspelled “scott” free (or worse, the variant “scotch” free), to go or get off scot-free means to get away with something. While the commonly shared story is flat out wrong, this version persists:

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

That’s because some people can’t spell it.

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 as the 10th century to help England’s poorest.

Later, scot taxes (no, your MLP didn’t miss the redundancy, chosen merely for its obvious clarity) took other forms, such as the church scot and soul scot (a mortuary fee — apparently even the dead paid taxes!). So whatever the tax, getting off scot-free simply refers to not paying taxes.

A nice fantasy, unless you’re one of those brilliantly wealthy corporate types famous for getting away scot-free. Hm.

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

A better explanation is from haberdashery (men’s clothing and accessories). In the 1800s, cloth was measured between brass tacks set in a shop counter. Maybe getting down to those brass tacks was about the building blocks of apparel.

Whichever it is, brass tacks isn’t actually a tax saying, but a masquerade — a tacks misspelling.

What counterfeit quackery is this! A shadowy charlatan that is!

Death and taxes. This reference to a Founding Father’s famous quotation is at least 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.

But it counts.

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 (and rather perplexing) window tax. Yes, it really was a tax levied on all windows (or window-like openings; any excuse!) of a property.

As you might imagine, rich people paid the most. Now, there’s a controversial thought.

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). Touché, your highness.

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

In closing, here’s another “dark” thought on Tax Day: Ever notice that the pairing of “the" and "IRS" spells "THEIRS?"

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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