Question: I recently saw a word, "scofflaw," that was new to me. Since it was made up of "scoff" and "law," and apparently meant "lawbreaker," I suspected it had simply been made up by that one particular writer. Thus I was surprised to find it in the dictionary. It's such an odd word, I felt compelled to write and ask about it.
Answer: "Scofflaw" is not only a funny little word, it has an unusual origin. It was the winner in a word contest sponsored in 1924 by a banker in Quincy, Mass. An ardent prohibitionist, he offered a $200 prize for a new word that would mean "a lawless drinker," hoping it would bring a measure of shame upon Prohibition violators. Entries poured in from all over the United States and from foreign countries as well - more than 25,000 in all. Two separate contestants, who both happened to be from Massachusetts, thought up the word "scofflaw." (They had to split the prize.)
Predictably, there was plenty of scoffing at "scofflaw" at the onset. To some, it had the ring of good-natured banter. One columnist even recommended it be taken as a compliment. Others were determined to toll its early death knell, but many writers seemed to find it useful.
It quickly began appearing in newspaper and magazine articles without any explanation or quotation marks, those typical self-conscious attachments to a newly coined word.
It was almost as if the term "scofflaw" had been legislated along with the Volstead Act that provided for the enforcement of prohibition, or as if it had been on the tip of people's tongues all along.
Its early period of popularity was brief, however, and in 10 years the word had all but disappeared from the printed page.
If it hadn't been for New York's chief magistrate in the 1950s, "scofflaw" probably would have been deleted even from unabridged dictionaries by now. In a campaign to crack down on people who had been blatantly ignoring their parking and traffic tickets, the New York City magistrate court labeled those delinquents "scofflaws" and went after them.
It still tends to be used most often in referring to people who accumulate unpaid parking tickets, but it's also widely used for other kinds of petty criminals who show contempt for the law.
Question: Ever since I was a child, I've heard the expression "talk turkey," meaning "get down to the facts." Do you know how the turkey got this reputation?
Answer: Originally the phrase "talk turkey" did not suggest confrontation but had the meaning "to say pleasant things," as in "talk turkey to a good-looking girl." This early sense may have come from the tendency of an admirer to get tongue-tied and talk like a turkey in the presence of the one admired.
Today we more commonly use the expression when we want to begin discussing the facts, no matter how unpleasant they may be.
A 19th-century yarn is sometimes pointed to as the source for this latter sense. According to the tale, an American Indian and a white man went hunting and bagged several birds, among which was a turkey.
The white man, think-ing he would take advantage, tried to divide the kill so that the better share would go to him. He said, "You may take the buzzard and I'll take the turkey, or I will take the turkey and you may take the buzzard." But his companion was not so easily duped, and replied "All the time you talk turkey. Now I'll talk turkey to you." The earliest reference we've seen to this story dates from 1824.