An innocent person deliberately blamed for wrongdoing, usually by the guilty parties.
This always seemed like a strange word to me: why a goat? The concept originally comes from the Bible, from the Book of Leviticus, when a goat is designated to take on the sins of the people and be cast out into the desert, thus freeing the people from their sins.
The actual word scapegoat seems to have entered the English language in the 16th century, with scape deriving from escape, i.e. the scapegoat allows the guilty to escape punishment.
People seem to have always wanted to escape punishment for their sins, understandably enough. In the Middle Ages, Catholics could pay the Church for indulgences, a reduction in punishment in the afterlife for sins committed in life.
A similar concept to a scapegoat is a sin-eater. This individual can be found in the funeral customs of a variety of cultures. They were a person who would be paid by the family of a dead person to eat a meal representing the sins of the deceased, thus freeing them from being punished in the afterlife.
Even though the practice can be traced back to various ancient cultures, references to it occurring can be found in accounts of funeral practices in England in the 1890s.
It seems like wanting to avoid paying the consequences for our actions has always been a universal feeling. Still, at least we’re not blaming the poor innocent goats anymore.