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The meaning and origin of the expression: Scapegoat


What's the meaning of the word 'Scapegoat'?

One who is blamed or punished for the sins of others.

What's the origin of the word 'Scapegoat'?

Scapegoat. Not a phrase you say? Quite right but, like lackadaisical and preposterous, it is so close to being one that it deserves to be included here. A scapegoat is like a whipping boy, that is, one who is unfairly given the blame, and in the latter's case also the punishment, for a misdemeanour. It's a strange word though - why 'scapegoat'?

For the origin we need to look to the Bible, specifically the 1530 Bible as translated by William Tyndale. In Leviticus 16 Tyndale described the Mosaic ritual of the Day of Atonement, in which one of two goats was chosen by lot to be sent alive into the wilderness, the sins of the people having been symbolically laid upon it.:

And Aaron cast lottes ouer the gootes: one lotte for the Lorde, and another for a scapegoote.

Scapegoat - William Holman HuntIt is now generally accepted that Tyndale got his translation of the Hebrew sources wrong. He misread ʿăzāzel' in the original and translated it as 'ez ozel', literally 'the goat that departs' or ‘the goote on which the lotte fell to scape’. Later scholars corrected the mistake and 'scapegoat' doesn't appear in the Revised Version of 1884, which has ‘Azazel’ as a proper name in the text, but by that time the word had already been established as a commonplace word. So commonplace in fact that, in the way that 'gate' is now added to form the name for any scandal, the 18th century gave us 'scape-horses', 'scape-rats' and 'scape-geese'.

As if Tyndale's invention of it wasn't enough, the poor old scapegoat has suffered further at the hands of dodgy spellers. Before the word got its correction in 1884 it had already been garbled in print into 'scrapegoat'. Richard and Maria Edgworth's Essay on Irish Bulls, 1803, contains this:

Let us not make one nation the scrapegoat for all the world. Let us hear no more of Irish witnesses, Irish bulls, and Irish blunderers.

'Scrapegoat' is an early example of an eggcorn. If you haven't come across eggcorns before they are well worth a look. They are invented words that come about as mishearings of the original correct word but which make some sort of sense. 'Eggcorn' is an example of itself in that it came about as a mishearing of 'acorn' but which might seem intuitively correct as acorns are egg-shaped.

'Scrapegoat' is now pretty well-established and can be found in many printed sources. Bob Dylan, endlessly poetically inventive but not overly concerned with grammatical propriety, used it in Ballad in Plain D, 1964:

Of the two sisters, I loved the young
With sensitive instincts, she was the creative one
The constant scrapegoat, she was easily undone
By the jealousy of others around her

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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