Scofflaw: Prohibited Anachronism?
Overflight Textual Note

Tracing by
Robert Wilfred Franson


November 2019

It depends on what the writer means by prohibited,
        and how he deals with anachronisms

My science fiction novel Sphinx Daybreak is set in 1904. The imagined societies and physical settings have a deep history, much of it barely touched upon in this book; and there are plenty of intimations hinting forward.

In any of my novels (or embedded flashbacks) set in our past I try to avoid accidental or unintended anachronistic events or words, and minimize or account for apparent anachronisms which I do use. Say no word before its time, and so forth. Lacking J.R.R. Tolkien's vast linguistic expertise or as finely tuned a linguistic conscience, I'm sure that plenty of anachronisms escape my screening and appear on the printed page. Some items I've checked as carefully as I can to make sure an event was known, a device was available, or a word in use — however uncommon. Headphones and glassine envelopes were in this class for Sphinx Daybreak. Others, as explained in the novel, may have been coined in one of my semi-isolated populations before entering general circulation.

Some anachronisms I use deliberately because I want to credit the inspiration: the origin of Half-Meadow House is a prime example. Other inspirations I may use just for fun: I needed a design for a communication device, but my justification for Trylon and Perisphere isn't explained until the sequel.

So, scofflaw

SCOFFLAW. An interesting word, but its pedigree isn't quite Shakespearean-era as I'd long thought. Jennifer M. Franson noticed a reference to the word's origin months after Sphinx Daybreak came into print. Some new word was proposed to label and stigmatize smugglers and moonshiners and drinkers who scoffed at the Prohibition Era laws and the enforcement thereof. A contest was established by a supporter of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution (effective 1920) prohibiting "intoxicating liquors". In January 1924 scofflaw was declared the winning entry. H. L. Mencken has the details in The American Language, where he rates it as obsolete after Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment (effective 1933 — coming or going, they were relative sticklers for the Constitution back then). It doesn't make it into the Oxford English Dictionary (first complete edition, 1933); but appears in Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition (1934 and thereafter) as "a proposed term".

Well, it's too good a word to be obsolete — a Google search as I write turns up about 790,000 entries — but it has really too precise an origin for fictional contexts before 1924. So scofflaw is out of my Sphinx Daybreak, replaced by miscreant, a word with a much more apropos lineage. Thanks to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing, the substitution going forward was easy.

I'd also used scofflaw in The Shadow of the Ship: not in its novella edition of 1976, but in the first novel edition of 1983 and the Revised Edition of 2014. Although here it's spoken in our future by someone who wouldn't know the Prohibition Era source (as I hadn't), the reader may assume that such non-English dialogue throughout is implicitly translated for the reader.

Sphinx Daybreak runs to 225,000 words. Fortunately, not all its words generated such a fit of authorial persnicketiness; even a hypothetical very long-lived Luftmensch novelist would have grown impatient. However the words that did so are fun, at least for the author; and I hope some also are for you.


© 2019 Robert Wilfred Franson

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