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Sun 8 December 2019
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(n.) someone who treats the law with contempt; someone who deliberately flouts rules that are difficult to enforce 


Last week, we were spoilt for choice when it came to picking a Word of the Week. This week, there was really only one course of action. Or inaction, as the case may be. 

That’s because, despite Parliament currently being prorogued and scrutiny helpfully grinding to a halt at a time of national crisis, this week it seemed that, there was always something a little shady going on in British politics.

On Monday, Dominic Grieve’s motion, compelling all those inside Number 10 to release their personal messages relating to the suspension of Parliament to the public, was passed in the Commons by a margin of 311-302. The response to that motion from Number 10 was, to put it lightly, somewhat muted. In essence, no – it wouldn’t be doing that any time soon. Despite it now being, y’know, The Law.

Next, the Government was then compelled to release the full details of the Yellowhammer report – outlining the potential impact of a ‘no deal’ exit – so that the public could know what to expect.

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Despite most of its contents having already been made public in the Sunday Times back in August, ministers initially dragged their feet before eventually releasing a redacted and apparently heavily edited version of the report on Wednesday. 

Almost instantly, people began to smell a rat. And not the ones we’ll all be barbecuing in upturned shopping trolleys mid-riot when we run out of food in November. 

According to this new version of the Yellowhammer report, it was now apparently an account of a “worst case scenario” Brexit, rather than the “base case” it had purported last month. And, while that earlier document ran to more than 30 pages, the version ministers were forced to release this week contained barely half a dozen. It was all very confusing—just ask Michael Gove

As if refusing to obey the rule of law and massaging the impact of your own Government’s assessment aren’t bad enough, no sooner had Parliament been prorogued this week when Scotland’s highest court deemed the motives behind Boris Johnson’s five-week prorogation of the Commons to be unsound. 

The implications of that ruling are considerable. We already knew Johnson bluffed both Parliament and the British public over whether or not prorogation was even being considered back in August. It has since been revealed that prorogation was mooted inside Number 10 as far back as the second week of August, despite the Government denying it for almost a fortnight before the policy was finally announced on 28 August.

Scofflaw dates no further back than Prohibition-era America – and, even more bizarrely, was apparently coined in a word-inventing competition in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1924.

The Scottish court’s ruling, however, implies that Johnson and his Cabinet have gone ahead with the prorogation simply to make a ‘no deal’ Brexit next month more likely and, in doing so, have perhaps lied to the Queen in seeking her assent for it. Johnson has already denied that particular allegation, but has so far refused to sign an affidavit to that effect to satisfy the court.

If that Scottish verdict is upheld by the Supreme Court next week, then, heaven knows where our current constitutional crisis will be headed. And, moreover, if the court demands Parliament return to the Commons, will Johnson & Co. comply? Given the soundbites currently coming out of the Cabinet, it seems unlikely.


All this and much, much more – more than £8 billion more, in fact – makes this week’s Word of the Week scofflaw, a term defined by the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary as simply “one who treats the law with contempt”.

For such an old-fashioned-sounding term, intriguingly scofflaw dates no further back than Prohibition-era America – and, even more bizarrely, was apparently coined in a word-inventing competition in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1924. 

According to a contemporary report in the Boston Herald, scofflaw was “the winning word in the contest… [aiming to find] a word to characterise the lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor”. From more than 25,000 entries, scofflaw took first place in the contest – and the two contestants who suggested it spilt a $200 prize between them. 

From that initial (and somewhat unorthodox) introduction to the language in the 1920s, scofflaw became something of a buzzword of the Prohibition Era. Its use in relation to those who routinely flouted the near-impossible-to-maintain rules of Prohibition, led to it being used, in particular, with regards to those whose criminal activity flouted what the OED coyly refers to as “not easily enforceable laws”.

The word began to fall out of common use in the 1930s and 1940s, but writers keen to add some contemporary flair to their historical fiction maintained its use almost single-handedly throughout the 20th Century. And, given the events of this week, it’s perhaps a good thing that they did…  

Illustration by @Bread_and_Ink 

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