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There have been many competitions down the years encouraging people to coin new words. Few of these creations ever find a permanent place in the language, because they must meet an obvious need or catch the public’s imagination to be successful. Scofflaw has achieved this difficult feat.

A contest was held in Boston in 1923, during the Prohibition era, to find a descriptive word for “a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor”. A prize of $200 was offered by Delcevare King of Quincy, a rich Prohibitionist, to find such a word in order to “stab awake the conscience” of those who drank alcohol.

Since $200 was a sum not to be sneezed at, more than 25,000 entries were received from all over America and beyond. The winner was announced on 15 January 1924; as scofflaw had been sent in by two contestants, the prize was divided equally between Mr Henry Irving Dale and Miss Kate L Butler.

H L Mencken mentioned the competition in his work The American Language, and commented that “The word came into immediate currency, and survived until the collapse of Prohibition”. As any modern dictionary will relate, it has survived rather longer than that, though these days it often refers to persistent offenders against parking laws and other minor regulations.

Page created 28 Apr. 2001

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 28 April 2001.