In Seattle, Scoffing At The Word 'Scofflaw'

Aug 5, 2014

The word "skofflaw" originated during Prohibition. Rather than being viewed as a derisive term, drinkers adopted the term with pride.
The word "skofflaw" originated during Prohibition. Rather than being viewed as a derisive term, drinkers adopted the term with pride.
Credit The Boston Globe archives

Sometimes the words we use cause offense we never intended. That’s what happened on Monday at a Seattle City Council meeting, when one word derailed a bill officials say could bring in $21 million in unpaid fines.   

The word: scofflaw.

The word entered popular parlance in 1923, when it was submitted to an international contest for the best word to describe the “lawless drinker” of illegal alcohol. According to Whiskey Wars of the Pacific Northwest, scofflaw beat out 25,000 other entries, including rum-rough, lawlessite and slime-slopper.

Now the Seattle Municipal Code defines a scofflaw as someone who doesn’t pay their parking tickets.

KING5 TV profiled a scofflaw in a recent news report. The reporter spoke of a Capitol Hill woman “whose 147 unpaid tickets made her one of Seattle’s top scofflaws.”

Councilmember Bruce Harrell had proposed legislation that would have made it easier to collect money from scofflaws. Currently, the city has to mail a letter before applying a metal boot to an individual’s car. But the city doesn’t have valid addresses for everybody. 

Under the proposed law, parking enforcers would have to warn car owners with a sticker on the car instead (as they do before impounding cars that have been parked on a street for a while).

All that talk about scofflaws didn’t sit well with everybody. 

Among the scoffers, Marcy Bowers, who runs the Statewide Poverty Action Network.

“When I hear the word ‘scofflaw,’" Bowers said, "I often have an instant reaction of, ‘Ugh, that’s just based on a stereotype.’ The word 'scofflaw' implies that people are actively attempting to skirt the law. You know, from the families I work with, I can tell you that they want to comply with the law. But the reality is they don’t even have the resources to find a place to live. So they’re not prioritizing a parking ticket."

Harrell’s legislation seemed on its way to passage on Monday night. After all, the council had been using the word “scofflaw” since at least 2010. 

But Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant wasn’t having it.

“I think we should also not use the word ‘scofflaw’ because it’s a pejorative term," Sawant said. 

Harrell backpedaled. He praised his critics for what he called “legitimate concerns” and withdrew the legislation from the agenda until September 2.