Tag Archives: Danes

The Skatman

7 Aug
Anglo-Saxon Display

Anglo-Saxon Display (Photo credit: gordontour)

You learn interesting things from the Popbitch mailout.  And not just about celebrities.  Or otters.

A recent Popbitch e-mail mentioned the delightful fact that the Danish for ‘taxman’ was effectively ‘taxdaddy’. 

I asked a Danish colleague.   She had never consciously thought about the oddness of the phrase before, but confirmed that it was indeed true; the Danes describe their taxman as the ‘skattefar’.

Putting the daddy issues to one side, the meaning of ‘skat’ turns out to be much broader than just tax.   In Danish, it’s also used as a term of endearment.  The Danes aren’t really calling someone ‘my little tax’ though.  Their usage is much more akin to the English / Gollum-ite use of ‘my precious’ because the original meaning of the word is ‘treasure’ or ‘hoard’.

Forms of ‘skat’ appear in various European languages, all emanating from this central idea of ‘treasure’.  The Germans use ‘schatz’, the Dutch ‘schat’, the Swedes ‘skatt’ and until Victorian times, the British still occasionally employed ‘scat’ to mean a form of tax, particularly in conjunction with the Orkneys and Shetland (the most Scandinavian parts of the British Isles). 

And the connection between treasure and tax?   

Tribute.  All those who battled their way through Beowulf or any Anglo-Saxon history at college will remember the importance of paying tribute (i.e. a big hoard of treasure), such as the Danegeld, as an act of submission to a victor.  

I’d never really considered it, but I suppose paying ‘tribute’ is effectively an early taxation system.  You give them your hard-earned gold and silver, and in return, you get a degree of protection.  Just like the tax system today, only with slightly more chance of getting your head kicked in.

We haven’t entirely lost sight of the word ‘skat’ in modern English either.  It’s evolved into ‘sceat’, a word fittingly used by numismatists to describe some of the coins of the Anglo-Saxon period.