In the annals of word creation, there are accidental blurts—Sarah Palin’s “refudiate,” say—and then there are more deliberate efforts. During the early 20th century there was a brief craze for contests to coin new words, somewhat like the ones we have today to name baby giraffes at the zoo. A new book, Ammon Shea’s “Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation,” recounts the history of these contests, in which individuals or corporations asked ordinary citizens to fill some “hole in the heart of the English language” by sending in improved terms for “airline porter” or “jazz.”
Inventing a successful word is difficult, and it’s no surprise that those selected through this process rarely made the grade. Eveready’s 1917 publicity-driven contest to find a better word for “flashlight” cost the company $12,000 in prize money, and all they got for their trouble was “day-lo.” But, 90 years ago, Shea notes, one of these contests generated a word that went on to become a perfectly normal dictionary entry. The tale of “scofflaw,” born in Boston at a time when Prohibitionists were staging mock funerals of “John Barleycorn” and fleets of Coast Guard rum-chasers patrolled Boston Harbor, shows that sometimes real words can actually be invented on demand. They just don’t always behave exactly the way their engineers hope they will.
Tracing “scofflaw” through the Globe archives, we find that the story begins with Delcevare King, a prominent member of Boston Republican society in the early 20th century. His father, Theophilus King, was a Quincy philanthropist and president of the Granite Trust Company; the younger King would eventually rise to that position as well. King seems to have combined firm moral convictions with a jolly clubbish spirit. He was vice president of the Massachusetts chapter of the Anti-Saloon League, an officer of the Watch and Ward society (the anti-vice organization whose activities inspired the ironic slogan “Banned in Boston”), and active throughout his life in a dizzying number of other local organizations, from the Church Attendance Council to the Rod and Gun Club. A bon vivant for a good cause, he played Santa Claus every year for tenement children and was master of ceremonies at the famed free-speech venue the Ford Hall Forum.
King’s mixture of moral stringency and personal playfulness was very much on display in what would become his most famous contribution to American letters. In early January 1924, it was reported that, in support of the three-year-old national policy of Prohibition, King would award $200 in gold to the person who invented the best word to denounce a violator of the 18th Amendment. “I do seek a word which will stab awake the conscience of the drinker...and stab awake the public conscience to the fact that such lawless drinking is, in the words of President Harding, ‘a menace to the republic itself,’” King said, according to the Globe.
Along with two other judges, also from “dry” society circles, King received more than 20,000 entries. They included “boozshevic,” “contralaw,” “klinker,” “lawjacker,” “slacklaw,” and “wetocrat.” The contest itself invited some lawjacking: James Allen, a porter in a South End “near-beer” (a legal, low-alcohol-content drink) saloon, was arrested that month for stealing a dictionary—which, he told police, was for use in coming up with entries.
In the end, two people independently suggested “scofflaw,” winning $100 apiece—Henry Irving Dale of Andover and Kate L. Butler of Dorchester, who dreamed it up while on a train returning from vacation in New Haven. King described his criteria for the selection: He was looking for a word of no more than one or two syllables; starting with “s,” “such words having a sting”; and applicable to any legal violation.
How could King’s opponents fight a neologism as solid as scofflaw? Clearly, there was only one solution: to hold a word contest of their own. The editors of the Harvard Advocate, a student magazine, promptly proposed a $25 prize for words describing a “dry,” or a Prohibitionist. (“The [Advocate] editors wish it understood,” the Globe wrote in February 1924, “that they are ‘wet,’ but are not trying to encourage the violation of any laws.”) Among the more than 2,200 entries were “fear-beer,” “suds-hate,” “jug-buster,” and the winner, sent in by Katherine Greene Welling of New York City: “spigot-bigot.” The most common response: “Delcevare.”
None of these, perhaps needless to say, took off—nor did any of King’s subsequent branding efforts, including his 1932 proposed slogan for his hometown of Quincy: “City of Better Parking.” After Prohibition ended in 1933, it seemed that “scofflaw” might be lost to time as well. H.L. Mencken eulogized it in the 1936 edition of “The American Language”: “[Scofflaw] came into immediate currency [after 1924], and survived until the collapse of Prohibition.”
But the word hung on. Instead of disappearing along with the particular ban that had spawned it, “scofflaw” broadened its meaning to refer to anyone who flouts the law, particularly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “various kinds of not easily enforceable laws.” In 1964, The New York Times observed in King’s obituary that the word “has lost most of its original meaning and is now principally applied to those who ignore parking tickets.” The Globe used it in a headline covering a major investigation as recently as March: “A Devastating Mismatch: City vs. Scofflaw Landlords.” As Shea said, “It’s pretty admirable, I think, that the word managed to make something of itself—went back to school, got an electrician’s degree, and became a very productive member of society in another way.”
King’s original hope—that “scofflaw” would be a scourge to illegal tipplers everywhere—seems to have foundered just as much as his hopes for Quincy’s future as a parking mecca. But the fact that we use “scofflaw” today is a testament to his foresight—not in matters of moral fortitude, perhaps, but in selecting a term plain and versatile enough to endure. “Scofflaw” may not “stab awake the conscience,” but, with its Anglo-Saxon directness and adaptability amid shifting historical winds, it does something better: It acts like a real word.
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.