Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Word of the Day: Scofflaw.

Every once in awhile I become obsessed by a particular word, and feel compelled to use it whenever possible. Of course it's much more satisfying if I use it correctly, in an appropriate context. But that's not always a likely option. Sometimes it happens to be a very obscure word appropriate to describe only a very specific phenomena. Such a word is "scofflaw"- which is my current vocabulary obsession. If the use of this word seems to reflect the meaning of its component syllables... it's not by accident.

What is a "scofflaw"? The Free Dictionary defines it as "One who habitually violates the law or fails to answer court summonses." What makes this word exceptional is its origin and relative newness. The word "scofflaw" entered the American-English language in 1923, through a prohibition-era contest that sought to coin a term for “a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor”. Evidently the word anxiously awaited its own birth, as two contestants (Mr. Henry Irving Dale and Mrs. Kate L. Butler) submitted the word independently of one another, and shared the $200 prize for their suggestion. Interestingly, people adopted "scofflaw" widely throughout prohibition, and expanded its meaning afterwards (to the above definition), ensuring its survival.

Modern-day scofflaws could be repeat offenders of parking, traffic or tax laws. During the 90's the term arguably reached its apex of legitimacy as the Clinton Administration introduced a series of "Anti-Scofflaw" regulation. These were intented to target government contractors who habitually vilolated environmental, labor, tax, antitrust, consumer protection, or employment laws. This expansion of the term seems to go beyond its modern sense... today it's mostly used to refer to the perpetrators of small acts of disobedience. Of course some corporate defenders would consider many of these violations to be of the minor variation.

Regardless of what criteria we use to assess the seriousness of certain groups of crimes, we are all no doubt scofflaws of one type or another. There are so many crimes outlined in this society that it is almost impossible to go through one's life on the right side of them all. Perhaps the most commonly flouted laws are those that govern traffic. I can say with assurance that I am a scofflaw when it comes to our roads... not that I blow off court summons (I actually make sure to appear in front of the magistrate in consistent attempts to "plea out" of points)... but despite the many times I have been caught speeding, I still remain quite fluid in my adherence to speed limits. I'm not sure how I would go about ensuring the safety of our nation's drivers. Excessive fines and possible license suspensions don't seem to do the trick. Maybe it's appropriate that the laws be subjectively enforced by policemen.

It seems to me that widespread contempt of certain laws (as demonstrated by frequent and repeated violations, by large numbers of citizens) should be perceived as a call for changes in the legal system. There will always be scofflaws for whatever category of law we examine. But where sheer numbers of repeat violators suggest that they far outnumber those who abide the laws, a change in strategy may be in order... just like during Prohibition.


Blogger Lee said...

My roommate does this with words. She'll pick a word and use it over and over and over til I tell her I'm spraying her down with mace.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Yes... but I bet you never forget the meaning of those words, eh??

9:25 AM  
Blogger Lee said...

I usually refuse to use the words ever again! Or until I forget.

8:27 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

That's pretty funny. If she does this every day for a few years, you'll have to speak in monosyllables!

6:14 PM  

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