Who’s afraid of some silly ‘scare’ quotes?

By Danny Bloom

Danny Bloom

CHIAYI CITY, Taiwan — Jews are sometimes referred to as “people of the book,” and from Jewish word mavens like William Safire and Leo Rosten to Jewish language sleuths like Ben Zimmer and Arnold Zwicky, it does seem that some “people of the book” enjoy not only playing with words, but also examing their meaning and origins. Language matters, no matter which language you speak, be it Yiddish, Hebrew, English, French or Esperanza.

I’m not a word sleuth and I’m not a language maven, but I love looking into the meaning of words, their origins and genesis. I approach words from the perspective of a writer.  I’m not an academic with a PhD in linguistics. I always loved reading the late Bill Safire’s “On Language” columns in the old New York Times, and I often corresponded with him when I had a language question. Believe it not, Mr Safire was kind enough to write back, and this was in the days when there was no email or Internet. One of my letters even made it into one of his
published books as a small footnote, he told me in a letter sent to me by snail mail in the 1990s.
I want to say here at the outset that I am not a ”style guy”, and newspaper style guides don’t interest me all that much either, but I have recently taken a keen interest in the term “scare quotes.”

What’s that you say? Read it again, slowly: “scare quotes.” How I wish Bill Safire was still around to help me out with this one, but in memory of the late great Mr Safire, here goes:

You probably ”know” what a “scare quote” is, although you might call it something else. Sotaro Shibahara in Toronto tells me he calls them “rabbit ear quotes” and other correspondents tell me they call them sneer quotes, horror quotes, queer quotes, air quotes and quote-unquote quotes.

Jon Stewart, the well-known Jewish TV comedian who can be both very pleasant and very vulgar, depending on his Manhattan mood, calls them “d*ck quotes,” — I kid you not!

I myself had never really paid attention to the “scare quotes” term until I began seeing it everywhere in print — and online — over the past few months. I began to wonder who coined the term, and why the word “scare” is part of the phrase. Do you know?

I turned to some newspaper style guides. The Chicago Style Manual cautions against its 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.”

Maybe one could put it another way: when overused, scare quotes lose their original ”raison d’etre” and scare the heck out of people, especially if readers have no idea what the term means. Like me. Which brings me to my “real” question here: why are they called “scare” quotes? What does ”scare” have to do with any of this?

When I asked Arnold Zwicky, a Stanford University language maven, about this, he told me by email that he found two references online that date as far back as 1956 and 1960. So it’s

not a new term at all. But it passed me by my entire adult until it popped up in my reading radar recently in my 63rd year on this ”Third Rock from the Sun.”

I’m on a mission. I’m looking for the “first coiner” of the ”scare quotes’ term. Was it someone in Britain? Something in my New England Yankee brain tells me this might be a ”Britishism”. Then again, it might be a New York term.

All I know is that if you Google the phrase today you will find “scare quotes” all over the place, from newspaper articles to blog posts. There’s even a website devoted to “scare quotes” now, with photos posted of funny office or lawn signs depicting them.
Colin Fine in Britain, an international member of the ”Scare Quotes First Coiner Search Team”, offers 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. Good luck trying to find the man or woman who coined the term.”

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.”

Okay, that’s cool. But are they ”scary”? Wouldn’t it be better, perhaps, to call them “distance quotes” in order to put some distance between the quoted words and the person writing the book review or political analysis?
If you know something about “scare quotes” that I don’t know, give me a holler.  I’m all ears.

Bloom is Taiwan bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World and an accomplished web-surfer.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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