We all know that language can be manipulated for political purposes. Recent history gave us a stunning example, as the politically unassailable "estate tax" (levied only on the richest .25% of Americans in 2009) became the reviled "death tax." But linguistic advocacy in the service of law or legal change is certainly not new.
Ken Burns's three-part documentary on Prohibition on PBS earlier this month touched on a lovely example: the contest that led to the coining of the word scofflaw to refer to those who flouted the limits on liquor sales. Burns's researchers got the heart of the story right but many of the details wrong, and a look at original sources reveals a more complex and interesting history. The contest was sponsored by a wealthy reform activist named Delcevare King. As he explained to a student newspaper, "I believe the whole atmosphere about prohibition can be changed--that lawless drinking can be made 'bad form'--just by getting into general use a word describing the present day drinker that will bite as does the word 'scab.'" And he offered $100 in gold for the best entry. Although scofflaw won, other worthy entries included boozesheviks, lawjacker, and patrinot.
Not to be outdone, anti-Prohibition forces sponsored contests of their own, including one seeking a word for those who "scoff at the God-given privileges of liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Entries included terms like killright, meddlebug, and pokenose, but the winner of the contest organized by the Harvard Advocate (submitted by a 67-year-old woman) was the wonderful spigot-bigot.
Scofflaw was initially ridiculed, then gained acceptance, then repeatedly died out and was resurrected in the years after Prohibition. The fuller story of King, his contest, and the fate of scofflaw (told and documented and even illustrated with a contemporaneous comic strip in Lawtalk), is too involved to summarize in a blog entry. But here's one way that lawyers figure into what Burns has dubbed "a nation of scofflaws." On the very day the winning word was announced, the ABA stood by its controversial choice of a British rather than an American ocean liner to transport some thousand American lawyers to meet with their British counterparts. The Association "denied that the question of liquor aboard ship had influenced the decision," prompting a Washington Post columnist to remark:
The American Bar Association . . . won't even inquire whether there's a bar on board until after the 3-mile limit has been passed, but if there shouldn't be it is surmised that the chairman of the entertainment committee will need a whale for a ferry boat.