Saturday, June 18, 2011

The origin of the word scofflaw

The high boozer & Scofflaw-in-Chief slime slops another brewski
From time to time Obama has been labeled a scofflaw by his opposition. 

It first surfaced during the Beer Summit when it was discovered that he had a pile of unpaid parking tickets from the Cambridge police department dating back to his Harvard student days. He only paid the tickets two weeks before he began his Presidential run.

Most recently the adjective has been applied to him because of his refusal to apply the War Powers Act to his Libyan adventures. 

A scofflaw is defined as "a person who flouts the law, esp. by failing to comply with a law that is difficult to enforce effectively." Mrs. Sinistral and a friend of hers somehow ended up discussing the word scofflaw yesterday. The friend wondered what the origin of the word was and my wife guessed old English. Still curious, she looked the word up this morning and was surprised to discover it was actually a manufactured word.

It is a manufactured word that is the result of a Boston Herald contest in the 1920s. It was the era of Prohibition and a Mr. King put up a $200 prize for the person who invented a word that best stigmatized illegal drinkers. 

From Predicting New Words some of the submissions were: vatt, scut, sluf, curd, canker, scuttler, dipsic, alcolog, slime slopper, ell shiner, still whacker, sluch licker, lawlessite, bottle yegger, crimer, alcoloom, hootch sniper, cellar sifter and high boozer.

I rather like alcolog and bottle yegger, but Mr. King chose scofflaw as the winner and so the prize was split between Henry Irving Dale and Miss Kate L. Butler, the two people who suggested it.

Other papers reacted to its announcement with amusement or disdain. The NY Times complained that  "it lacks the merit of coming trippingly from the tongue" while the NY Tribune disapprovingly compared it to organic slang words such as "roughneck, highbrow, boob, jazz, hootch and hoodlum".

However people, particularly the scofflaws themselves, quickly embraced the word. Below is a poem by the scofflaw C.W.
I want to be a scofflaw
And with the scofflaws stand;
A brand upon my forehead
A handcuff on my hand.
I want to be a scofflaw,
For since I went to school,
I hate to mind an order,
I hate to keep a rule.
Meanwhile Jack, the manager of Harry's Bar in Paris, invented Harry' Scoff-Laws Cocktail which was popular with his patrons. If you care to mix one -- one ounce Canadian whiskey, one ounce dry vermouth, 1/4 ounce of lemon juice and a dash of both grenadine and orange bitters.

The word has since evolved beyond only illegal drinkers to mean any person who knowingly ignores minor laws -- littering, not wearing seat belts, not paying traffic tickets and the like. 

Who knows, with its recent use against Obama over the War Powers Act, and the Democrats in the Senate for failing in the legal obligation to produce a budget, perhaps the word will take on even more meaning in the future. Regardless, it is an interesting case of a manufactured word successfully entering the English language. 
DISCLAIMER: Mrs. Sinistral, who suggested this post and is also a life long Democrat, wants it on the record that she objects to the post's political slant, particularly with regard to my snark in the photo caption.


KurtP said...

Did he specifically ask for a girls glass?
I'd have asked for a schooner...but I usually have a cold can that I hold like a man.

ambisinistral said...

I'm surprised he didn't wave his pinky finger higher in the air. I must say, as a hootch sniper he leaves a lot to be desired.

49erDweet said...

I discern absolutely no slant or snark in either the post or caption. Are you certain she didn't just want you to take her out to dinner?

ambisinistral said...

Heh, she's a committed Democrat who thinks I've gone insane.

I think she was looking for a reason to complain. She thought the body of the post was OK, all she really complained about was the caption to the picture.

Mr3dPHD said...

The caption was my favorite part, ha ha!

I love the word Scofflaw. I'm planning on opening a brewery here in Florida called Scofflaw Brewers, in fact!

Wow...just realized that I'm bringing a blog post from 2011 back to life.