Scofflaw: A person who habitually violates or flouts the law. From scoff + law.
In his book Predicting New Words, Allan Metcalf awards “[f]irst prize for Successful Word Coinage (Twentieth Century)” to scofflaw, “a term whose success as a word is proportional to its failure to eradicate the thing it describes.” What makes scofflaw’s success even more remarkable is that it was coined as a contest entry. The track record of such words is not stellar; compare pitilacker, the winning entry in a 1926 contest held by the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to establish “a scolding word for one who is cruel to animals” (source: Etymology Online).
Scofflaw comes from the same period. In October 1923, nearly four years after Prohibition became law in the United States, Mr. Delcevare King of Quincy, Massachusetts, decided something had to be done about the widespread flouting of that law. According to Metcalf, King was “a prominent member of the Anti-Saloon League and graduate of the Harvard Class of 1895” whose ire was raised by “Johnny Harvard,” a drinking song of the Harvard Glee Club. Its lyrics included:
Then drink, drink, drink, drink,
Pass the wine cup free,
Drink, drink, drink, drink
Jolly boys are we.
King decided that a new word was needed to “sting and shame the drinker” (in Metcalf’s phrase). King offered a prize of $200—a considerable sum at the time—to anyone who could invent such a word. By the contest deadline, January 1, 1924, he’d received 25,000 entries from every state and a few foreign countries. The Boston Herald listed some of the suggestions:
Vatt, still, scut, sluf, curd, canker, scrub, scuttler, dreg, drag, dipsic, boozlaac, alcolog, barnacle, slime-slopper, ell-shiner, still-whacker, sluch-licker, sink, smooth, lawlessite, bottle-yegger, crimer, alcoloom, hooch-sniper, cellar-sifter, rum-rough, high-boozer, and low-loose-liquor-lover.
In evaluating the submissions, King and two fellow judges followed a strict set of criteria—exactly the sort of rules a modern name developer would include in a naming brief. As Metcalf tells it, “Instead of looking for the most clever and innovative creations, they wanted a short plain word” of one or two syllables. It should begin with s, to give it a “sting.” It had to refer “not to all drinkers but just the illegal ones.” It had to emphasize the law, not liquor. And it should be capable of being “linked to the statement of President Harding, ‘Lawless drinking is a menace to the republic itself.’”
The prize ended up being divided between Mr. Henry Irving Dale of Andover and Miss Kate L. Butler of Dorchester, both of whom had submitted scofflaw.
Article from Rowley’s Whiskey Forge, a blog.
The word is now so embedded in the lexicon that it seems ancient—and for good reason, Metcalf writes. Law “had been at home in English for nearly a thousand years” while scoff “had been in English both as a noun and as a verb since the 1300s.”
Nevertheless, at the outset there were scoffers. On January 17, the New York Times pooh-poohed scofflaw, saying it “lacks the merit of coming trippingly from the tongue.” The New York Tribune called it a “grotesque compound.” On January 18, Franklin P. Adams, the popular columnist for the New York World, predicted that “by St. Valentine’s Day only a few antiquarians will recall the word.”
They all were wrong, of course. One reason for scofflaw’s success may have been the fact that “the scofflaws themselves evidently relished the term rather than flinching from it,” Metcalf writes. By the end of January 1924, Harry’s Bar in Paris had invented a Scofflaw Cocktail: one ounce dry vermouth, a quarter ounce lemon juice, “and a hearty dash of both grenadine and orange bitters.” Metcalf reports that the drink was popular until Prohibition ended in 1933.
If you’re interested in Prohibition, this is a good week to be near a television. The second season of Boardwalk Empire—a fictionalized account of Prohibition-era Atlantic City—continues on HBO. And Ken Burns’s new documentary, Prohibition, is being broadcast on PBS in three parts this week. (The second installment, which airs tonight, is “A Nation of Scofflaws.”) The series draws on Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent, who served as senior creative consultant to the series. For more about Last Call, see my December 2010 post, “How Prohibition Changed Branding and Language.”