Puzzling Antedating of "Scofflaw"

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Sun Jan 23 22:37:43 UTC 2011

This is a weird one.  One of the outstanding examples of a conscious coinage of a successful word is "scofflaw."  The OED 's first citation is from the Boston Herald, Jan. 16, 1924, reporting that "Delcevare King of Quincy last night announced that  $B!F (Bscofflaw $B!G (B is the winning word in the contest for the $200 he offered for a word, to characterize the  $B!F (Blawless drinker $B!G (B of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor.  $B!F (BScofflaw $B!G (B was chosen from more than 25,000 words, submitted from all the states and from several foreign countries. The word was sent by two contestants, so the prize will be equally divided between Henry Irving Dale $B!E (Band Miss Kate L. Butler."  There are numerous other newspaper articles reporting this Jan. 15, 1924 announcement.

But a Newspaperarchive search pulls up an earlier article, seemingly correctly dated Jan. 27, 1923, from  the Charleston (W.V.) Daily Mail.  The 1923 article, datelined New York, Jan. 26, states that "The first meeting of the Royal Order of Scofflaws held here was a staggering event.  A 'Scofflaw,' as you may know, is a man who ignores the prohibition law.  A man in Quincy, Mass., offered a prize for a name which would rebuke bootleg drinkers and Scofflaw won."

It is hard to know what to make of all this, but one hypothesis is that Delcevare King had a contest that ended with his picking The Word, and liked it so much that he decided to do it all over again and get more publicity the second time.

Fred Shapiro
YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (Yale University Press)

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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