'Scofflaw' and Inventing Words for Money
Most of the time, we are sorry to say, the word you invented won’t make it into the dictionary. Except, on occasion, when it does. Today, we tell the story of one such rule breaker: ‘scofflaw.’ Then, we look at all the various shapes and forms the word ‘mustache’ has taken over the years, before shaving itself down to its current spelling.
Download the episode here.
(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)
AMMON SHEA, HOST: One of the questions that we get quite often is “How can I get a word into the dictionary?”
PETER SOKOLOWSKI, HOST: There is some distinction shown between a mustache and a mustachio.
EMILY BREWSTER, HOST: Coming up on Word Matters: inventing new words and the history of mustache. I’m Emily Brewster and Word Matters is a new podcast from Merriam-Webster, produced in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary’s vantage point.
EMILY: So let’s say you’ve invented a useful word that perfectly fills a gap in the language. All you have to do is tweet it to your local dictionary publisher and it’ll get added to the dictionary, right? I’m afraid no. Even if we agree that your coinage is useful, the chances that your word will someday meet our criteria for entry are very slim. And yet, perhaps there’s reason for hope. Editor Ammon Shea has this story of an invented word that somehow beat the odds.
AMMON: At Merriam-Webster we get a lot of letters. We get complaints, occasional kudos, and we get many, many questions. In that last category, one of the questions that we get quite often is “How can I get a word into the dictionary?” Now, we are hardly unique in this regard. I think Oxford actually has an entire page on their website dedicated to answering this question, which is kind of odd, to be honest, since the answer in almost all cases is really quite simple and mercifully short. It is “you can’t.” Have you guys ever tried to get a word into the dictionary? Or is that one of the first things they tell you, you can’t.
EMILY: I can’t, actually.
NEIL SERVEN, HOST: I don’t know if I know the right people.
AMMON: Right, right. Have you ever accepted bribes for getting a word in? Told someone you could? It’s a common thing, I think, that people think that if I think really long and hard, I find a situation for which there should be a word and I really apply myself and come up with a fine specimen, that it should get into the dictionary. But unfortunately this is not really the way that language, and certainly not the way that dictionaries work. Except once in a very, very great while. And there is one notable word which was invented for the purpose of inventing a word, and it is scofflaw.
PETER: Meaning “outlaw”?
AMMON: We define it as “a contemptuous lawbreaker; especially one who ignores parking tickets.” It was also the name of a ska band in the 1980s, 1990s, The Scofflaws. But yeah, it’s mainly a parking ticket offender now. That is not the word’s original meaning. It was invented in 1924 and it wasn’t invented by Delcevare King, but he was a banker in Massachusetts who wanted to come up with a word to describe people who failed to abide by the 18th Amendment. Which was of course banning the sale, manufacturing, and transportation of most alcoholic beverages. It was the amendment that gave us Prohibition. Many people did not, in fact, pay attention to this amendment and Delcevare King and some other people were kind of upset about this, but he thought there ought to be a word for that. And so he sponsored a contest in which he offered the prize of $200, which was not bad in 1924, looking for a single word. He wanted a word that he described it as “it would stab awake the conscience of the lawless scoffing drinker.” 25,000 people joined this contest.
NEIL: That’s what money will do as a motivator.
AMMON: That’s right. In 1924, that’s what money would do. $200. There were some great, great possibilities. There was boozecrat, lawjacker, sliquor, patrinot…
AMMON: … boozeshevik, and scutler.
EMILY: What’s the liq one?
AMMON: It was sliquor. Like liquor but with an S in front of it.
EMILY: Ahh, sliquor.
AMMON: I’m not sure what role the S is playing there.
AMMON: I like patrinot. It’s got a certain clumsy elegance to it.
NEIL: Patrinot, like a, not like a…
EMILY: Yeah can you spell that one?
AMMON: Like a patriot, but with an N right in the middle of it. Like someone ostensibly I believe who was not in fact a patriot.
NEIL: Ohh, not a patriot.
EMILY: Not the naut of astronaut, cause this is 1923.
AMMON: Two different people, Kate Butler and Henry Dale, submitted the winning word. And both, I think, were given the $200 in prize money. And they came up with scofflaw, supposedly independent of each other, but of course we have our doubts, by blending scoff, which comes from the Middle Eastern scof, it’s we think probably of Scandinavian origin, and law, which comes from Old English, also potentially of Scandinavian origin. And I think that maybe they were influenced by Delcevare King’s initial admonition that he wanted to stab the conscience of the scoffing drinker. But they won. It was a big success, except for the fact that scofflaw almost immediately changed its meaning. Because nobody uses this word to describe the 18th Amendment anymore because the 18th Amendment soon went away. Even when you do create a word, it might not actually stick with the meaning that you wanted. It’s a tricky thing, this word creation business. And King, it worked so well for him that he tried a couple of years later to come up with a slogan for the National Recovery Association. But this time he only offered $10 and it didn’t work out so well. The slogan was…
NEIL: He lost his funding.
AMMON: The slogan was “NRA Saves Us,” which didn’t make it. There have been a number of other word contests, but the only other word that I can think of that’s worked in this way was skycap, which is still used to describe somebody who carries luggage at an airport.
PETER: And that was invented…
AMMON: That was invented in 1940.
EMILY: And it was also a solicited coinage?
AMMON: You know, I don’t remember. I think it was a contest as well. There was a heyday of word-creating contests in the early part of the 20th century. The kind of king of them all, so to speak, was in 1917 Eveready offered $3000 to whoever would find a better word for flashlight.
PETER: Oh my gosh.
NEIL: What is wrong with the word flashlight?
AMMON: I don’t know, but nothing that $3000 can’t fix, apparently.
EMILY: Both flashlight and scofflaw, they really hearken back to the core of the language. Its Old English root. It actually seems to me that it might speak to some of the success of scofflaw that it has this compounding structure. It’s not a true blend, because neither word is taken apart in any way.
EMILY: They’re just these two words that are just thrown together. And it has a very Old English ring to it.
NEIL: And they start with a verb. With flashlight too it starts kind of verb then noun.
NEIL: You know, you’re flashing the light, you’re scoffing at the law. I like the way that relationship kinda gives an element of agency to it. You’re scoffing at the law.
PETER: Well these are, there’s a category. These are called cutthroat compounds. And it’s always a transitive verb plus a noun. So like daredevil, killjoy, turncoat. And it’s a whole category. There’s a great blog about these at EncyclopediaBriannica.com, who’s a scholar who collects them. And has found…
AMMON: Oh yeah she’s got a lot. Great collection.
PETER: … over a thousand of them and maybe is the primary scholar of cutthroat compounds. And the fact is, English is so rich in this particular way of making words. And that’s why it works. In other words, if the word didn’t kind of feel right, people wouldn’t use it.
AMMON: Well that would explain why the contest to replace flashlight was such a dismal failure, because four people, all of whom by the way won the full $3000 prize, suggested daylo. Which…
NEIL: Which is not even as fun to say as flashlight.
AMMON: It’s not fun. We never get to say that things are bad words, but I think in this case it’s approaching being a bad word.
EMILY: Well a failed word. This word has not done a good job of being a word.
AMMON: Yeah. Daylo just did not live up to our expectations.
NEIL: That does not work at all.
EMILY: No it really doesn’t.
AMMON: You know but there were a bunch of other contests like this. In 1924 there was a bandleader, Meyer Davis, who decided he didn’t like the word jazz. And a lot of people didn’t like the word jazz. Jazz has had many problems as a word, but it’s been an incredibly successful word. In spite of the fact that Meyer Davis offered $100, a whole hundred dollars for somebody to come up…
PETER: In what year?
AMMON: 1924. It wasn’t really that good. But he had a contest to come up with a better term. To give you an example of how many people didn’t like the word jazz, 700,000 people sent in entries.
PETER: Whoa! 700,000.
AMMON: Yeah, and the winning entry was even better, if you can believe it, than daylo. The winning entry for the word to replace jazz in 1924 was syncopep.
PETER: Synco as in…
AMMON: It sounds like something you drink when you have a little too much energy. It’s like a kind of laudanum Pepto Bismol mixture.
EMILY: Yeah you could market that.
AMMON: Right. And this was actually not the only time they tried to replace jazz. In 1949, Downbeat Magazine, which is the great jazz magazine, they offered $1000 for an alternative to jazz. I don’t know how many entries they got. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t 700,000. They had some bad possibilities. They had, blip was suggested, jarb, J-A-R-B, was one of the finalists, and the judges ended up picking that word that we all know and love, crewcut.
NEIL: For jazz?
PETER: Meaning… oh did it refer to the musicians’ styles? I don’t know.
NEIL: Crewcut I think of as a very straight-edge word. It’s like, I think of people in the Navy or something.
AMMON: Yeah the crewcut was a recent adoption to the English language. My understanding, I think crewcut probably goes back to about the 1920s. It’s definitely early 20th century. It’s not a very old term. So I think perhaps crewcut at that time didn’t have quite the same association.
EMILY: It felt new and edgy.
AMMON: You know the thing is that people do create words, but usually not in response to a contest. Or they don’t usually stick. So you know Horace Walpole famously created serendipity and Thomas Jefferson invented belittle. You know but for every serendipity and belittle there are thousands and thousands of failed coinages. There are thousands of blips, jarbs, syncopeps, daylos, and boozesheviks. So I think the important thing to pass on here is that for all of you out there who dream that one day of creating a new word, you know, being immortalized, plenty of people have created words, but you’re not gonna be one of them.
NEIL: And it’s not often that the word gets coined and is remembered for its coinage. Every word has to be coined, ultimately, but you never really trace it back all the way to the origin.
NEIL: The ones that are are kind of rare and are noted as stories. I think of the word googol, G-O-O-G-O-L, the math word that is for the figure of one followed by 100 zeros, equal to ten to the 100th power, that was invented by a mathematician’s nephew. Milton Sirotta was the kid’s name, the nephew of an American mathematician Edward Kasner. It just stuck because there’s never really been a need for a better word than googol. The website Google supposedly named itself in honor of that word, because it connoted an immense, vastless space, but you don’t often get that whole origin story cleanly preserved and then following the word where it goes. So if you think you’re gonna be able to coin a word and then become famous for coining it, it’s like a two-step process there. One, you need to have the hope that the word catches on and is used. The other half is you have to hope that people remember you.
AMMON: You have much better odds playing the lottery if you wanna really strike it rich. And I forget who it was, but there was somebody very smart who once said “I felt much better about not playing the lottery when I discovered that my odds of winning were exactly the same whether I did or didn’t play.” And you can really apply that line of thinking to creating words. If you think that your path to immortality is creating words, you really might as well just not play.
EMILY: Well right, but it’s the path to immortality, I would argue, not the actual creating of words. Anyone can create a word. The chances of you gaining fame or fortune by these means are almost null. Before we left this topic, I did want to address a recent coinage, a solicited coinage along the lines of scofflaw. This is in 2012, and the word is phubbing.
EMILY: This is one of those words that we are watching. Are you all aware of this word? Phubbing?
PETER: I’ve heard of it.
NEIL: Phubbing, it’s…
EMILY: P-H-U-B-B-I-N-G. It’s a gerund. It’s the act of ignoring people you’re with for the sake of looking at your phone.
EMILY: So it is snubbing by means of a phone.
PETER: Of a phone.
EMILY: And this word was created through the bringing together by a Canadian advertising agency a group of language experts. They wanted to come up with a term for this phenomenon, so they assembled these people. And the word has some usage, but it hasn’t really caught on yet. But I’m curious to see if it does. But now it’s, you know, seven years ago that this word was coined, and I have not seen it really making much of a splash.
NEIL: I fear being accused of it. Just the fact that someone is thinking of a word for this, I’m gonna be very conscientious now
EMILY: Well it does speak well to the word’s survival, right?
PETER: It’s a real phenomenon.
EMILY: There’s this phenomenon that we’re all encountering all the time, so if you are going to invent a word there are certain things that you might want to keep in mind if you want this word to really be successful. One is that is has a referent that is in the world. But there are other words for snubbing people with your phone.
AMMON: You also, you need to have a contest and prize money, don’t you? I mean I thought that’s the lesson I took from this.
NEIL: That’s the only motivation.
AMMON: Right. That’s how to really be successful with word coinage.
EMILY: Yes. Yes. But there’s not really much money in word-making.
EMILY: You’re listening to Word Matters. I’m Emily Brewster. We’ll be back after this break with the history of mustache. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.
PETER: I’m Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the definition and history of one word. Available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM Podcast Hub at nepm.org.
NEIL: I’m Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EMILY: Have you ever had that sensation where the more you look at a word, the stranger it seems? Well, include a word’s history in that examination and things get stranger still. Even the most common, concrete words in the language tend over time to shift in form and function. Some shifts seem, in retrospect, completely arbitrary, while others are a response to major sociological change. We’ll begin with the former sort, with editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski and the story of the word mustache.
PETER: Normally when we talk about words, we focus often for example on etymologies, and it’s like looking at the dictionary with a microscope. It’s like we’re gonna take this apart and explain what we find. But sometimes if we step back, forgive me for being too broad-minded here, but I sometimes think that language itself is consensus. That the dictionary is actually evidence of human consensus. We’ve all agreed that this group of sounds in this order mean this thing. And then that these letters in this order correspond to those sounds. And in some ways, I mean if you want to be super high-minded about it, that the dictionary may be the greatest evidence of human consensus we have. Because it means that millions of people agree that this group of sounds means this certain thing.
NEIL: It's very democratic.
PETER: But it is sort of perfectly democratic. Or at least as perfectly as we can make it. If a word is used, that’s the meaning of that word. In fact, when we talk about entering words in the dictionary, we usually talk about three criteria. It has to have widespread use, long-term use, and meaningful use. And a lot of people say “what words don’t have meaning?” Well there are words, like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, that don’t have meanings. Or at least not the same meaning for me as it might be for you. And so that sort of makes that word sort of ineligible in a sense for dictionary entry, at least by the traditional rules. It just got me thinking about this idea of consensus and how we finally land on that pronunciation or that spelling or that meaning of a word. And the reason I’m thinking in these broad terms is that I crossed the word mustache recently and it was spelled differently. And I noticed that the British spell it differently than the Americans do. So the American spelling is usually with a U and the British usually spell it with an O-U. And that got me to thinking, well what about the times when I read, for example, I don’t know, in The Three Musketeers that it was mustaches, that it was plural. And I always took that as being kind of charming and old-fashioned.
NEIL: Well there’s three of them, right?
PETER: Mustaches. (laughs) Or really what is, what is, like how many do we have? Or is this a linguistic question or is it like an actual question about the phenomenon: do we have one or two mustaches? Are they separated by the nose? I don’t know. It’s a weird thing. So I just started looking at where this word came from and I realized that there was sort of no consensus about this word for a very, very long time. And it starts, really, with the biggest surprise which is there was no word for this thing until the late Renaissance, until the late 1500s. Which is bizarre, because even if you look at, like, the Battle of Hastings, the great illustration The Bayeux Tapestry ,which shows these knights in shining armor with clearly hair on their upper lips and not on their chins.
AMMON: Do they call it like “lip caterpillar” or something?
PETER: Well I mean that’s the thing. You’d think there’d be an Anglo-Saxon term for this, and we’ll get to that in a little bit, but as far as we know, the word mustache kind of comes in clearly from the Latin languages, French and Italian and Spanish, but it didn’t have an Anglo-Saxon exact corresponding term. Which is kind of unusual. And there was no consensus like many terms that came in the Renaissance up north, you know from Italy through Spain and France, finally into England. English speakers just used the foreign words. They used, like Christopher Marlowe, the great playwright, used a kind of Spanish-looking word muschato. But he used it in the plural, muschatoes, so this was a plural term. And we see that in the late 1500s, early 1600s. And then you see that French spelling at exactly the same time, moustache, M-O-U-S. And that was used by other playwrights.
EMILY: Singular or plural?
PETER: Also in the plural. So moustaches. There’s an interesting quotation about the settlement in Virginia in 1590 and the account says “They shave all their beard except the mustaches.” Again, in the plural. Whenever I look at that period I sometimes think of Shakespeare. What did Shakespeare do? I’ll look up Shakespeare. And he used the Italian word, mustachio. But he used it as a singular, so we have no consensus of spelling or which form of the word, is it the French form or the Spanish form or the Italian form. We also don’t have consensus as to whether it’s a singular or a plural: do we have one or two of these things? And the thing is, at this point of course there was no dictionary. Shakespeare had no dictionary. The first monolingual dictionary that we know of is about 1604. Is that right?
AMMON: Robert Cawdrey.
PETER: Yeah. And so basically they didn’t have anywhere they could look it up. They were using the terms that they had heard. But the idea of their having no consensus in terms of spelling and even the phenomenon also goes to this idea of synonymy. So there was an Anglo-Saxon term. It’s a word that you know. Whiskers. And whiskers was a synonym to mustache. Or mustaches. It was used exactly the same way and of course we kind of recognize that. In 19th century writing: “his whiskers.” Sometimes I might, as a modern reader, take that as meaning more sideburn-y than mustache-y, but it’s something on the face of a man. There’s an interesting parallel that was made in 1634, it’s a book called The Noble Spanish Soldier, referring to a cat. Now we think of cats as having whiskers, right? But in this sentence it says “my tusks, more stiff than are a cat’s mustachtos.” So they’re referring to the cat’s whiskers as mustaches.
PETER: So there was a perfect parallel. In other words, not only were they both used in the plural, so cats have whiskers…
EMILY: What year was that?
PETER: That’s 1634. So cats have whiskers. We usually refer to them as a group, as a plural. So in this case, mustaches and whiskers were perfectly synonymous. They were used interchangeably. For people or men, or used for cats. It’s true that we don’t use mustache to mean a cat’s whiskers anymore in English. That doesn’t fly. Older dictionaries will show that use. But, to say whiskers of a cat in French you say moustache. You do say plural of mustaches. So that term has remained in French but not in English. So finally, let’s come to some consensus. One of my favorite dictionaries, I actually have this in my office, a 1699 printing of Abel Boyer’s French-English bilingual dictionary, and he enters the term in English as plural: mustaches. And then he puts in parentheses “or whiskers.” So we clearly see that around 1700 they were the same word. His translation in French is moustaches with an S. So a plural for both languages, a plural for both synonyms. And then the next big one of course is Samuel Johnson, 1755, and he enters the word only as a plural: musta'ches. And then his substitute for the definition is “whiskers.” That’s Johnson’s definition of mustache. His entry reads “mustaches: whiskers, hair on the upper lip.” And so he does give it a kind of analytic definition but he also gives it that synonym. And then of course the next place you look is Noah Webster. We have to look at Webster’s dictionary. And we know that he was looking at Johnson, you know, he used Johnson’s dictionary. He also only enters it as plural: musta'ches. So this is now 1828 and he only gives it an analytic definition: “long hair on the upper lip.” So the consensus hadn’t completely been achieved, because you did sometimes see over time, for example in Charles Dickens, writing just about the same time, he used mustachio in the plural, mustachios, in Oliver Twist. So what’s interesting is these dictionary definitions didn’t actually reflect the fact that these foreign words were still in competition with the Anglicized French spelling. This idea of consensus is, to me, in motion, this idea that we’re seeing evidence that the word was being used and it was being used in English and it was often used in the plural. But then there were competing forms that we hadn’t completely lost use of.
NEIL: It’s interesting with regard to whiskers. In modern English, I’m used to hearing whiskers as a, what we call a count noun.
NEIL: It has a singular form, whisker.
PETER: A whisker.
NEIL: You can touch a one cat’s whisker. And yet for the whiskers, the whole set of those structures on the cat’s face, and yet when I hear a person referring to their own whiskers, you don’t think of that as ever being singular. You can’t have a whisker on your face.
EMILY: No, it would be one hair. Like, one hair in a set of whiskers.
PETER: Right. Oh, interesting. And mustache would be kind of a noncount. Well I guess you could have plural mustaches on several faces, it’s just a singular.
NEIL: It’s a singular noncount noun, and I think of it along the lines of beard and goatee, and it’s the same.
PETER: Yeah, referring to one thing.
NEIL: The same thing, hair is kind of a mass noun.
PETER: Right. Like sand.
EMILY: It’s also a count noun. One hair.
NEIL: Yeah you can have multiple hairs, I suppose. You can pull them out or whatever. But with mustache, it’s strange that it doesn’t seem to have any idea of its own singular unit.
EMILY: Well it does. It does. There are two different senses here, I think. Right? I mean certainly if each of you three grew a mustache, there would be three mustaches.
AMMON: I can’t grow a mustache.
NEIL: I, I tried, there are pictures, it does not look good.
EMILY: Oh good, then I don’t feel so lonely. But it’s clearly a count noun, because people grow mustaches. You grow a mustache, you shave it off. But it refers to something that is a mass of hair accumulating on the upper lip.
NEIL: I think the word tuft comes to mind, for some reason.
AMMON: None of these lexicographers, Johnson and Webster, they didn’t have any mustaches, did they?
PETER: That’s a good point.
AMMON: There’s a real dearth of mustaches.
PETER: Yeah. Until the later 19th century.
AMMON: I guess we don’t really know about Cawdrey, do we? He could’ve had a mustache. There’s not a lot of pictorial evidence of him.
PETER: But the people working for the Merriam revision, I bet there were some beards and mustaches, because that was the period of the bearded presidents, for example. After the Civil War, when every president had a beard.
EMILY: The Latin term mustachio seems only to have really remained in English as the verb, right? Mustachioed.
PETER: Right. Or adjective, right. This is where the consensus really finally lands, which is to say that by the late 1800s you had people like George Eliot and Conan Doyle using mustache just as we do today, using it in the singular with a sort of Frenchy kind of spelling. And not the Italian or the Spanish one. But then there’s this word mustachio, which significantly is always used to refer to some emphasis on the size or the grooming of the mustache. There’s something special about that, like Rollie Fingers was the person I think of, someone with a special mustache.
AMMON: A mustache with airs.
PETER: Yeah it’s a mustache with attitude, right?
PETER: Affectation. So there is some distinction shown between a mustache and mustachio. And then there’s also the adjectival forms mustachioed and mustached. If you look in a corpus, you will find that mustached is used simply to indicate that the person now has or has had a mustache. But mustachioed refers, again, to a special one. Something that is either waxed or rolled or has the curlicues or something.
AMMON: A mustache with continental flair.
PETER: Yeah, something is extra. And what’s interesting to me about this, this ancient thing, first of all the synonymy fell away. We can’t or we don’t refer to the cat’s whiskers as mustaches in English anymore. That’s gone. We do have a kind of consensus, at least that the French form in the two different spellings, one with a U, one with an O-U, have landed in British and American English. And then mustachio is reserved for the special version. It’s interesting that we have this one word that has two branches, essentially. One that means the special version and one that means the conventional version. But that only happened about 125 years ago. For a phenomenon that is, as far as we know, as old as there have been razors. It’s a fascinating thing to think that English has this term that we think of as being almost anatomical, and yet it’s a relatively recent word. It doesn’t really have an Anglo-Saxon equivalent, although maybe whiskers was that. I did some quick looking in some Middle English, to see if there were examples of this word whiskers being used in this way, and it just doesn’t seem to be the exact equivalent. It’s just a strange thing, that for personal grooming we finally came to this word, but it came very late to the language even though it feels like it’s always been here.
AMMON: You think we can afford the rights to the Stephen Foster “If You’ve Only Got a Moustache”?
PETER: I don’t know.
EMILY: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or send us an email at email@example.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I’m Emily Brewster. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.