scofflaw

The birthdate of the word scofflaw (one who flouts laws that are minor and unenforceable) is known much more exactly than most: January 15, 1924. It was the winning entry, out of more than 25,000 in a competition held in the early years of American prohibition, to find a name for the lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor, as recorded in the first Oxford English Dictionary citation. But the word never carried much weight because prohibition laws lacked widespread public support: they seemed to be making criminals out of law-abiding citizens who drank – creating “a Nation of Scofflaws”, as a recent documentary had it – when the organised crime of the prohibition era was a much more obvious legal problem. With the repeal of prohibition in 1933, scofflaw in its original sense disappeared, though it resurfaced after World War II in reference to people who defied parking fines, or avoided paying for traffic offences and phone bills. In the last two decades, scofflaws have again been in the news as the target of a new kind of public law-and-order campaign – “broken windows” policing, or zero tolerance to petty crime – a strategy for cleaning up American cities. But frontline police find themselves exposed and under-resourced to keep up the pressure – and the scofflaw is again only the surface of far more complex problems.

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