Ad and marketing creatives

Sidecars and Scofflaws: Prohibition's Linguistic Hangover

Earlier this month, Orin Hargraves took us on a lexicographic joyride through some of the vocabulary of the Prohibition Era, which was ushered in a century ago with the passage of the Volstead Act and the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution. The 13-year experiment was in many ways a social and legal failure, but in one respect it succeeded wildly: It vastly enriched our lexicons of slang and marketing, often to lasting effect. In fact, it was so linguistically productive that we're dedicating a second column to it.

Take, for paradoxical example, the names and brands of alcoholic beverages. Although the 18th Amendment outlawed the manufacture, sale, and importation of "intoxicating liquors" — and although nationwide alcohol consumption did indeed decrease between 1920 and 1933 — all of those activities flourished illicitly. The results could be perilous and even fatal, writes Daniel Okrent in his lively 2010 history of Prohibition, Last Call: "Speakeasy liquor could have been anything from single-malt Scotch smuggled by way of Nassau to diluted embalming fluid."

How to stay safe? By ordering brand-name booze. Before Prohibition, writes Okerent, when public drinking was done (mostly by men) in saloons, "calling for liquor by brand name was almost unheard of; in the speakeasy era, it became a habit" — both as a means of protection and as a declaration of status. The British distiller Berry Brothers created Cutty Sark whisky — named after a famous clipper ship — in 1923 specifically to be smuggled into the US; the older Haig & Haig and Dewar's brands were repositioned to appeal to discriminating American lawbreakers. All three brands survive today.

In November 2013 Cutty Sark introduced Prohibition Edition whisky to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Repeal.

To mask the nasty taste and smell of most illegal booze, bartenders and drinkers added juice, soda, and other flavoring agents to drinks; the generic name for all those additions became mixer, a term that first gained currency in that sense during Prohibition. (The OED's earliest citation, from 1925, names Canada Dry ginger ale—the trademark was registered in 1922 — as the mixer of choice.)

The word cocktail ("a strong, stimulating, cold American drink") has been with us since the early 19th century, but its use expanded significantly during Prohibition. Many popular mixed drinks — including the French 75 (honoring a piece of World War I artillery), the Bee's Knees (a nod to a popular 1920s slang term, one of many animal-derived terms of the era that denoted excellence), and the Sidecar (named for the one-wheeled motorcycle attachment) — date from Prohibition.

Determined drinkers in the 1920s often resorted to concocting their own beverages, perhaps as bathtub gin, a term that first appeared in 1920 and covered any type of amateur homemade spirit. If you favored something less potent, you could make your own beer using supplies sold legally at a malt shop. During Prohibition the Pabst brewery, famous then as now for its Blue Ribbon beer, sold Pabst Blue Label malt syrup: Just add yeast, water, and time. The term for the activity and its outcome was homebrew, which had entered the lexicon in the early 19th century but spiked dramatically in usage beginning in 1920. A quarter-century later, the meaning of homebrew would be extended to signify homemade or improvised electronic equipment. In the 1970s, homebrew computing clubs sprang up; the most famous was the Homebrew Computer Club of Menlo Park, California, whose members included Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and other influential computing pioneers.

A 1977 issue of the Homebrew Computer Club newsletter.

Whether the booze was imported or homebrewed, a lot of people were indulging to excess, which inspired a spate of inventive new slang terms for "drunk." In 1927, the writer Edmund Wilson, whose loftier credits included a stint as the New Yorker's chief book critic, compiled a “Lexicon of Prohibition” that consisted of 104 synonyms for "intoxicated" that he arranged "as far as possible, in order of the degrees of intensity of the conditions which they represent." On the mild end of the spectrum were lit, squiffy, oiled, lubricated, and owled; at the other extremity were to have the heeby-jeebies, to have the screaming-meemies, and to burn with a low blue flame.

Naturally, all this flagrant flouting of federal law did not go unnoticed. In October 1923, one Delcevare King of Quincy, Massachusetts, decided something had to be done about it. A new word, Mr. King declared, must be coined to "sting and shame the drinker," according to Allan Metcalf, who tells the story in his 2002 book Predicting New Words. King offered a prize of $200 — a considerable sum at the time — to anyone who could invent such a word. By the contest deadline, January 1, 1924, he'd received 25,000 entries from every state and a few foreign countries. The Boston Herald listed some of the suggestions:

Vatt, still, scut, sluf, curd, cankers, scrub, scuttler, dreg, drag, dipsic, boozlaac, alcolog, barnacle, slime-slopper, ell-shiner, still-whacker, sluch-licker, sink, smooth, lawlessite, bottle-yegger, druner, alcoloom, hooch-sniper, cellar-sifter, rum-rough, high-booker, and low-loose-liquor-lover.

In evaluating the submissions, King and two fellow judges followed a strict set of criteria — exactly the sort of rules a modern name developer would include in a naming brief. They wanted a short, plain word of one or two syllables. It should begin with s, to give it a "sting." It had to refer, writes Metcalf, "not to all drinkers but just the illegal ones." It had to emphasize the law, not liquor. And it should be capable of being "linked to the statement of President [Warren] Harding, 'Lawless drinking is a menace to the republic itself.'"

In the end, the prize was divided between Henry Irving Dale of Andover and Kate L. Butler of Dorchester, both of whom had submitted scofflaw, a compound created from two words that had been well established in English for many centuries.

There were those who scoffed at scofflaw — the New York Times said the word "lacks the merit of coming trippingly from the tongue" — but they were quickly outnumbered. Scofflaw was gleefully embraced, not least by those it was intended to disgrace, who adopted it as a badge of honor. On January 16, a poem that began "I want to be a scofflaw/And with the scofflaws stand" was published in the New York World. By the end of the month, Harry's New York Bar in Paris — the famous hangout of American expatriates and visitors like Ernest Hemingway and George Gershwin — had introduced a Scofflaw Cocktail (rye, vermouth, lime juice, grenadine, orange bitters). Allan Metcalf has declared scofflaw to be the most successful word coinage of the 20th century: "a term whose success as a word is proportional to its failure to eradicate the thing it describes."

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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