This term, for one who is punished for the misdeeds of others, is the result of a mistranslation. The term was coined in 1530 by William Tyndale, who misread the Hebrew word ‘azazel, the proper name of Canaanite demon, as ‘ez ozel, literally the goat that departs. In Leviticus 16:8, the scriptures describe how two goats should be prepared for an offering, lots should be drawn, and one should be sacrificed to the Lord as a sin-offering, and the other given to Azazel and set free in the wilderness bearing the sins of the people. From Tyndale’s 1530 translation:
And Aaron cast lottes ouer the .ii. gootes: one lotte for the Lorde, and another for a scape-goote.
To be fair to Tyndale, he was not the only one to make this error. The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses tragos apopompaios, or the goat that is sent out. The Vulgate Bible refers to the second goat as a caper emissarius, or the emissary goat. Coverdale’s 1535 Bible refers to it as a free goat. But it was Tyndale who coined the term scapegoat, or scapegoote as he spelled it, literally the goat that escapes. The King James Version retains Tyndale’s scapegoat, but most modern translations have corrected the error and refer to Azazel.
It was not until the 19th century that scapegoat acquired its current, wider sense. All prior uses of scapegoat had been in terms of the Leviticus passage. From Mary Russell Mitford’s 1824 Our Village:
Country-boys...are patient, too, and bear their fate as scape-goats, (for all sins whatsoever are laid as matters of course to their door,...), with amazing resignation.
The verb form appears by 1943.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton