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Scofflaw? I'll drink to that!


In 1923, a national contest kicked off in Boston to find a new word.  The definition was in place, and a $200 prize was announced once someone invented a word that would embody this definition.  The definition: “a person who drinks illegally”.  At the time, this meant pretty much everyone in the United States (and much of Canada), since Prohibition had been in place since 1919.  The contest and its prize was sponsored by Delcevare King, a banker and an enthusiastic supporter of Prohibition.

The contest was announced in newspapers across the country, but it was the Boston Globe that found the winners.  There were two winners, in fact: Globe readers Henry Irving Dale and Kate L. Butler, who independently hit upon scofflaw to inhabit this definition.  Since both came up with it, Mr. King decided it was fair that they split the prize money, giving $100 to each of them.  Theirs were only two of about 25,000 entries received.

The term caught on, and enjoyed popular currency for as long as Prohibition was in effect.  The term was adopted by supporters of Prohibition, and was used to mean exactly what it was originally intended to mean: anyone who drinks illegally, and thus flouts Prohibition.  It took on another meaning in Harry’s New York Bar, a celebrated spot in Paris.  A bartender named Jock invented a cocktail called the scofflaw in January 1924, reacting quickly to the American neologism.  In Paris, of course, you could serve and drink cocktails legally, so while this was certainly scoffing, of a fashion, it wasn’t breaking any laws.  (The cocktail, if you’re interested, is made of whisky, dry vermouth, lemon juice, grenadine, and orange bitters.)

Harry’s New York Bar at 5 Rue Daunou, Paris—in operation for 106 years and counting.



Harry’s New York Bar offered the night life that was getting harder and harder to find in the United States.  (Harder to find legally, anyway.)  Not only did it sell liquor, it boasted that it never closed, and indeed it didn’t.  If you wanted to go somewhere for a drink at 4:00 AM, they’d be happy to take your business.  You could usually find live music there, too, at all hours of the day.  The America-themed decor promised a beacon of America’s banned drinking culture.  America was known for cocktails, which had long been popular on the west side of the Atlantic, but hadn’t yet really caught on in Europe.  When Harry’s New York Bar opened on Thanksgiving Day 1911, it ventured to promote the cocktail in Europe, offering them as its specialty from day one.  Harry’s is still open today, but it has long given up its 24/7 hours of operation.  Though it promises all the forbidden vices you might want, even Harry’s had to bend to French law, and stopped selling the strong, often hallucinogenic liquor absinthe when the French government outlawed it in 1915.

Prohibition continued in the United States until 1933.  Though the outlawing of alcohol did decrease drinking and increase labor productivity considerably, it also led to a growth in crime and alcohol-related deaths, and is generally considered a failure today.  1933 was high time to repeal Prohibition, anyway.  The Great Depression was in its fourth year, suffering from the Hoover administration’s austerity policies, and struggling with 24% unemployment nationwide.  A lot of people really could have used a drink at that time.

Bar patrons in 1933 celebrate the repeal of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, which banned alcohol in all 48 states.



Now that alcohol was legal again, the word scofflaw fell out of use.  No one needed it anymore!  Later on, the word enjoyed a revival.  It was rediscovered in the 1950s, and repurposed to mean anyone who voluntarily flouted any law that was difficult to enforce.  It’s more often used to refer to fare-jumpers on mass transit, or speeders on highways—or, you could argue, underage drinkers.

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