What are scofflaws?

Word count: 311 words

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: scofflaws.

In my community paper this week I encountered a word that I know and love. Said the article:

The city of Vancouver wants to put the hammer down on scofflaws.

Of course I know that a scofflaw is a person who a person who habitually flouts or violates the law. The hawk in the image above is a scofflaw because it is likely hunting (for rodents!) when the sign tells it not to. The definition is right in the word itself: someone who scoffs (makes fun of) the law. But I was curious about the etymology. How old is this word? How did it originate?

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find out but when I checked my etymological dictionary, I hit gold! The word dates to 1924 and was the winner in a national Prohibition-era contest sponsored by the Boston Herald. Contestants were challenged  to coin a word to characterize a person who drinks illegally — and the newspaper received than 25,000 entries. The $200 winning prize was split between Henry Irving Dale and Kate L. Butler who both sent in the word, scofflaw, separately.

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

Me? I like the word, although I don’t see that it has much to do with drinking. Instead, my mind’s eye conjures up images of rowdy teenagers or unpaid parking tickets. Or hawks, hunting, when they’ve been warned against it!

Photo courtesy Dendroica Cerulea, Flickr Creative Commons

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