In a movie, a character can use “air quotes” to punctuate his or her lines, as has been done countless times in dozens of films. TV sitcoms and comedy shows use “air quotes” with abandon as well. Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” uses both air quotes and scare quotes, but he refers to the latter as ”dick quotes”—and he’ll have to explain that one!
But how to perform an “air quote” in print, in a newspaper article or a blog post online? Well, the body language is a bit different, and one uses a keyboard rather than one’s outstretched fingers in a rabbit-eared stare, but the effect can be the same. For some odd reason, nobody on Earth has yet figured out why these printed “air quotes” have been dubbed “scare quotes.” There are neither scary nor frightening, although their unregulated use online and in print now is a bit discombobulating, to be sure..
I once asked the artist Peter Plagens, who was travelling in Italy when our emails met in cyberspace, what he knew about scare quotes, since scholars have noted that he was the first American to use the term in print in a non-academic publication. Yes, in a 1993 article for Newsweek about Roy Lichtenstein’s art, Plagens used the scare quotes term in print for the first time ever in popular culture (unless Al Gore beat him to it!).
When I asked Peter how the term first came to him, he replied:
“I first heard the term ‘scare quotes’ in the late 1980s when I’d just become art critic at Newsweek magazine. Overly fond of every device available—parentheses, em-dashes, semi-colons, italics, etc.—that might give a little bounce to what I wrote, I used scare quotes a lot, without, of course, knowing their name. Then an editor told me to quit using so many scare quotes. What are they, I asked, and was told the ‘name’ of the thing I should quit using so much.”
But the term took on a life of its own post-Plagens. From the “august” New York Times to “edgy” CapitalNewYork, from the “Moonie” Washington Times to the New Republic and New York magazine, scare quotes have been on a roll ever since, and there’s seemingly no end in sight.
I’m surprised there isn’t a board game about scare quotes or even an online game based on them. What’s next? “Square Quotes” the movie? ”Sponge Bob Scare Quotes” the TV show?
According to “sources,” the original term might have been ”coined” sometime in the 1950s in an academic setting that mostly revolved at first around philosophy professors in Britain. In addition to being called ”scare quotes,” other names have been tossed around, including ”sneer quotes,” ”horror quotes” and ”distancing quotes” (not to mention Jon Stewart’s unfortunate coinage, above).
I myself had never really paid “serious” attention to the “scare quotes” term until I began seeing it everywhere in print—and online—over the past few years. One day, I just couldn’t take it anymore. Enough with these scare quotes! Why on Earth are they called ”scare” quotes?
The Chicago Manual of Style cautions against their overuse, noting:
“Quotation marks are often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard, ironic, or other special sense and imply ‘This is not my term’ or ‘This is not how the term is ‘usually’ applied.’ Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused.”
I sometimes wonder what Steve Martin, who invented “air quotes” back in the 1980s, would have to say about scare quotes.
Could the nickname be any reference to “scarecrows,” perhaps, as some ”pundits” have suggested?
When I asked a Stanford University language man about this, he told me by email that he had come across two academic references to scare quotes that date as far back as 1956 and 1960, and from England, no less. A British scholar sent me a 1946 reference to the term in a non-fiction book by Upton Sinclair. 1946!
I’m looking for the “first coiner” of the ‘scare quotes’ term. If the “late” William Safire was alive, I would ask him.
All I know is that if you Google the phrase today you will find “scare quotes” all over the place, from newspaper pieces to blog posts. There’s even a book and a website devoted to “scare quotes” now, with photos posted of humorous office and lawn signs depicting them.
Colin Fine in Britain has offered me this consolation:
“It’s very rare to be able to pinpoint the individual who first used a word in a particular meaning, and equally rare to be able to do more than speculate about exactly what mental picture or association they had when they made that innovation.”
I hate to go to Wikipedia, but here goes: “Scare quotes are quotation marks placed around a word or phrase to ”imply” that it may not ”signify” its ”apparent” meaning, or that it is not ”necessarily” the way the quoting person would ”express” its concept.”
Got that? I haven’t a clue.