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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

air quotes

(1990’s | journalese?)

I often consider, usually without any definite result, how verbal expressions can make their way from non-existence to prevalence in a few short decades. I continue to stumble over the first cause conundrum: Must there always be an instance in which a single individual utters a new expression at a fixed point in time? Or is a more nebulous origin possible? Whether we can actually pinpoint the moment of origin is irrelevant — all sorts of things are lost to science because the right observer isn’t present at the right moment. Perhaps it is due only to my limited imagination, but it still seems incontrovertible to me that there has to be a distinct event, a tree falling in the forest whether there is anyone to hear it or not. And so it must be for gestures. Somewhere, at some time, someone did what had never been done before: held up the first two fingers on each hand while uttering a word or phrase, either to indicate that they were quoting someone else, or (most often) that the locution so decorated is dubious for some reason.

There are cases, of course, where variant forms of a new expression compete — sometimes for years — before a winner emerges. Shouldn’t gestures have the same freedom? Maybe the first propounder of air quotes held up index finger and pinky, or even clenched fists. Maybe Richard Nixon wasn’t making “V for victory” signs after all; maybe he was putting the next four years’ worth of utterances in quotation marks, notably “I am not a crook” or promises to get to the bottom of dirty tricks played on the Democrats, and democracy itself, by a handful of criminals.

The press started noticing air quotes around 1990; in the early days they were associated with the likes of David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Bret Easton Ellis, and other representatives of the culture of ironic self-consciousness that bloomed in the yuppie era (before there were hipsters, there were yuppies). One tried to demonstrate that one was fully aware that everything one said was subject to questioning and critique, and to forestall it by acknowledging it, not to say wallowing in it, before one’s hearers even had a chance (cf. “what’s your point“). In the arts, one focused obsessively on the act of creating rather than actually creating anything, in the manner of television pioneer Garry Shandling — before Seinfeld but after Letterman — who went to his reward recently. Everyone got tired of this jokey, stagey, heavy-handed irony after a few years, but sincerity has never been the same since, and we must remain aware at all times of the futility of everything we say and do. No wonder no one accomplishes anything any more.

Today, air quotes always signal derision, or at least skepticism, toward the expression they surround. They make a straightforward non-verbal substitute for “so-called” or the now defunct “quote-unquote.” When you get tired of using your words, use your hands.

scare quotes

(1990’s | academese)

Scare quotes may just be the print equivalent of air quotes. But while air quotes may theoretically be innocent, scare quotes by definition cannot be. And while it is normally obvious to everyone watching when a speaker uses air quotes, writers may not get to decide whether their punctuation constitutes scare quotes or not. Someone else — usually someone who feels aggrieved — may declare them such.

Scare quotes may not indicate direct attribution, but they invariably proclaim that the expression within is unfit (or inappropriate, as we say nowadays). Maybe it’s noxious, or discriminatory, or wrong-headed, or simply fails to capture the full import of the situation. Scare quotes bear malice aforethought and provide occasion all by themselves for argument. Never mind what I actually said; how dare you call it into question. From the other side: I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death my right to enclose it in scare quotes.

I encountered the expression first in academic contexts, and LexisNexis concurs; the first instance shows up in a letter to the New York Times written by a philosophy professor in 1983. Professors spend a lot of time examining suspiciously the words of others, and that sort of suspicion is a necessary precondition for the use of scare quotes. If you look hard enough, you can find some objectionable term; with a little practice, you need not look very hard.

To me, the odd thing about both of these expressions is the use of the word “quotes” to mean “quotation marks” rather than simply “quotations.” (My English literature survey professor would blanch at either one, but never mind.) Why shouldn’t “scare quotes” refer to words adopted for the purpose of frightening others, like “scare tactics”? Yet the meaning of “quotes” is invariable in both phrases. There’s no reason for such single-minded usage that I can see. “Air quotes” could mean “citing someone else’s words during a broadcast” or even “prices for commercial flights,” but it doesn’t, just as “scare quotes” isn’t used to talk about another person’s words yanked out of context in order to turn hearers against him. Isn’t that what political campaigns are all about? If I were the militant sort, I would start a campaign to redefine, or at least extend, these expressions. But rest easy, America, I have a blog to write. 323 entries and counting.


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