"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 20 March 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.


The Jawbone of a Scare Quote

When newspaper reporters, magazine scribes and novelists need to put themselves next to a recent-vintage euphemism — but still want you-the-reader to know that, although some may refer to it as "maize," we at least know it's corn — they turn to that most slippery of journalistic practices: They pat the phrase on the back and send it on its way bundled up in scare quotes.

Scare quotes are the quotation marks found around phrases like "gangsta rap," "shame spiral," or "security zone": coinages that may be lingo, that may be jargon, that may even be slang but are more likely excuses where a little distance is in order. The subject of the story may say it's "the truth," but we say it's spinach and — ya know what? — to hell with it. Scare quotes throw a net around the ideas and assertions media culture hasn't absorbed yet, stuff journalism's jobholders may even be a little afraid of.

At their bare minimum, scare quotes nudge their readers into unwanted disbelief. Across the nation, grammatically challenged merchants use quotation marks to make phrases seem more exciting. Once you've read a sign in the supermarket that says, "Hot Dogs" on sale, can you ever really believe anything again? Having walked past a sign reading Leo's "Barbershop," on subsequent passes will you ever not question what's really going on in there? If the corporate outlets that are helping all the "ho-made" Donut shops (which are open "Sunday") lose their leases really wanted to glom onto some authenticity, they'd put up signs reading Au Bon "Pain" or Starbucks "Chain Store." You'd wonder. Admit it. Is it really a chain store?

It's the same thing in the newspaper. The subject of a news story may believe his "reality" is ours, and for the sake of letting the guy have his say or because the writer is infatuated but can't commit, he's usually willing to go with his subject's usage for now. The scare quotes let you know the jury's still out — the euphemism may become reality if it's tenacious enough to get the nod from the dictionary someday or to shed the scare quotes in the paper. A reader caught The New York Times at this practice in its 5 May 1993 edition and used Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" as the bag of oranges for the beatdown. The Gray Lady had suddenly dropped the scare quotes around the obvious doublespeak "ethnic cleansing," thereby legitimizing a term for genocide favored by killers looking to cast their murderous policies in a less sinister light. The upshot is that today we all know what ethnic cleansing is, and "genocide" somehow seems a PC fallback-word for whiners. The terms have changed places and the legit description now reads as suspect. That wasn't genocide — the numbers just weren't there. (Note that italics can be used in scare-fashion, too, but nobody wants to use the unwieldy term scare italics so you don't see them as much.)

The style guides published by big newspapers don't ignore how quotation 
marks can be used for ironic effect; they reveal that there are lots of 
reasons to use scare quotes but insist that in every case they should be 
used sparingly — the soul must be searched before a writer goes so far as 
to encase something so indirect in quotation marks. What style guides 
ignore is the term scare quotes itself, even though the phrase has been 
journalistic parlance for years. And everybody knows it, even Newsweek. 
Writing in an article called "Lichtenstein on the Line" in its 18 October 
1993 issue, Peter Plagens took journalism's shiv out of its sock even as 
he kept it at arm's length. He put the scare quotes in scare quotes: 
[Lichtenstein] not only helped invent a new, contagious style, but was 
instrumental in putting "scare quotes" around the whole idea of art.  

Yet the term isn't mentioned in The New York Times' heavy-duty instruction manual, nor in The Washington Post Deskbook on Style; not in the slim volume the Associated Press puts out or The Chicago Manual of Style or any of the various MLA guides. Even dictionaries ignore it. Neither Webster's nor Random House admits the term into its pages, although Random House tells us that a "scarehead" is "a headline in exceptionally large type" and that it's also known as a "screamer." It dates from around 1885, and it's good to at least find out that "scarehead" and "screamer" are synonyms. In no volume of the Barnhart Dictionary Companion — an instrument so thorough it sees fit to include not only "soccer mom" but "soccer dad" — do we find an entry for "scare quotes." Only online at dictionary.com and dict.org, products of Princeton University's WorldNet, can a definition for "scare quote" — singular — be found: A scare quote is the use of quotation marks to indicate that it is not the author's preferred terminology.

Not the author's preferred terminology. A force from outside is making itself known; the author, who, after all, does know where shingles come from, is being pitchforked by hillbillies into calling a perfectly obvious cypress a "skinnybone tree." For scare quotes, even when invoked to lend authority or simply to point out that someone actually did say it that way, always call the phrase between them into question. Take The Washington Post's example of scare-quoting "coined or specialized words not readily understood": The train was "deadheaded" — it carried no passengers. Since the definition also explains the proclivity for songs about trains among the people who make up the noun form of deadhead, it's a lot more charged than the Post's admittedly unsubtle example of scare-quote irony: The "mansion" she told us about turned out to be a three-room cottage.

The MLA Style Manual instructs academics to "place quotation marks around a word or phrase given in someone else's sense or in a special sense or purposefully misused." Its example — Teachers often make use of visual "texts" from current exhibits at the college's art gallery. — proves how seriously scholars take the MLA. If every academic who's used the word "text" to mean "something that technically isn't a text but, you know, for me it's a text" put it in scare quotes, there wouldn't be enough quotation marks left in the language for professors to put around words like natural, original, and the Great in Great Books.

The Associated Press gives in to irony as well but adds that "unfamiliar terms" need inverted commas, too — but only on first reference: Broadcast frequencies are measured in "kilohertz." It doesn't want people scratching their heads over oddball collections of consonants and vowels like "kilohertz." I mean, what is that — metric? It sounds foreign. I'm not gonna go around measuring frequency cycles in thousands per second, no sir. I'm gonna do it the way I learned it in school, the way my father and my grandfather did it: in pounds. Here, scare quotes familiarize and domesticate as much as they estrange and call into question. More important, they alleviate the need to write "so-called" all the time.

The Post Deskbook mentions that coined names in classical music need quotes too: Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" Suite. Because of what we're used to seeing in scare quotes, it makes it seem somewhat bumpkin-ish to refer to that work that way — it's what you people who only listen to classical music once a year call the "Nutcracker" — but in this case it's appropriate and reassuring: Don't worry, readers, nobody's nuts are really gonna get cracked tonight, even if it is a ballet.

The Deskbook goes on to list other use-them-if-you-have-to applications 
for scare quotes: for key phrases in attributed quotations ("dirty spy" 
is its example, as opposed to just "spy") and for terms that are 
subjective or — using scare quotes to define scare quotes — "loaded": the 
schools were "separate but equal"; South African "homelands." Mostly 
the Deskbook feels a little exasperated about the whole scare quote thing. 
"It is better to let words convey meaning than to rely on typographical 
devices," it concludes, explaining why Guillaume Apollinaire never really 
made it as a newspaperman. Indeed, ours is an era that would rather not rely 
on "typographical devices" — but finds it has to. 

A quick look at the day's papers proves it. Even The New York Times can't help but indulge, albeit apologetically. There, the strategy is scare quotes once-removed, attributions only. From 24 February, under the headline "Utah Senate Approves Bill to Fight Polygamist Crimes": Mr. Allen said the extra money and resources were needed because there should be more aggressive investigations and prosecutions, which have to penetrate what he called "secret communities." The Times didn't label those wayward Mormons as belonging to "secret communities"; it was one of their own who did it.



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