The Jawbone of a Scare Quote

Conversely, when a Bush campaign aide told the Times  on the same day, 
"We're dipping into our Gore pool," maybe it would've been better if scare 
quotes had been used around the phrase Gore pool. Without them, George W.'s 
campaign takes on an ominous, moonlit glow it couldn't have achieved even if 
it had hired Anne Rice to pick out the Son of George Senior's capes. "Gore pool"? 
It sounds a tad Gacy-ish. What else is down there with the Gore pool?

Daily papers like the Times and The Wall Street Journal (which on 23 February had Bill Bradley calling for "earnings insurance" for laid-off workers, the scare quotes indicating that Senator Bradley may as well have been calling for free cable) use scare quotes with a precision unknown to the Christian Science Monitor. In the Monitor's 24 February edition, everything from pleading the Fifth to checker chip to Geekcorps to the "prodigal" God was scare-quoted. The list of scare quote items in a single article on the new skyscraper the Monitor is building in Boston is not short: microcommunities, livability, environmentally correct, daylighting, caisson, even hats. Obviously some of these are specialist terms, but the cumulative effect of seeing them all in scare quotes constructs one idea in the reader's mind: sick building.

The New York Times wasn't always the circumspect institution it is now. Under byline-unfriendly managing editor Carr V. Van Anda in the 1920s, scare quotes dotted its pages like ants at a picnic. On a typical day (say Friday, 22 October 1926) the front page greeted readers with headlines like Electricity Lights Palace in Lhasa, 'Forbidden City'; Reed's Klan Inquiry Shifted to Indiana for Watson's Story — Senator in Hospital Wires for a Chance to Deny the "Slanderous Charges"; and — in the kind of story Cary Grant referred to in His Girl Friday as "human interest" — 2 Little 'Wolf Girls' in Den With Wolf Cubs; Rescued, 1 Dies; 1 Is Humanized Slowly. The single quotes and double quotes may strike readers as systematic; rest assured that "Slanderous Charges" is not a direct quotation. The 'Forbidden City' story goes on to offer an underexplained "evil one" as being partially responsible for creating lights which outshine the sun and the moon and to put Forbidden City in double quotes in the body of the story. Another story informs us that "leathernecks" from the main base at Quantico, Va., armed with rifles, riot guns, pistols, automatics and other weapons, entrained at 1 o'clock this afternoon for the principal cities of the South and East to guard the mails. The "Slanderous Charges" become "false and slanderous," and the 'wolf girls' retain their single quotes throughout. (Interestingly, the 'wolf girls' grew up to be acting sisters Audrey and Jayne Meadows; Audrey was the one who lived.) Headlines on scare-quote heavy page 23 give the double and single quote treatment to Relative and Joker, respectively. And even though a headline there reading Bandits Raid Homes Demanding Liquor — Cow Women, Seek Whisky contains nary a scare quote, it was too good not to mention.

It's not just journalists who sprinkle on the scare quotes; novelists do 
it too. In Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon invariably refers to a 
mysterious organization (or is it a phenomenon?) as "The White Visitation." 
More mysterious than even Pynchon's use of the device is Charles Portis' in 
the novel True Grit, where an entirely unironic older woman recounts her 
adventures as a 14-year-old and tallies up a list of scare-quoted words and 
phrases unrivaled in American literature: Cowlick, dopeheads, stunt, 
mesmerized, (these last two in the same paragraph), tell no tales, wooly 
chaps, and pins and needles all appear between quotation marks, along with 
many others. I desperately needed the shirt but I did not wish to "mess" 
further with the snakes in order to have it. What was Portis thinking? Was 
he making his prose look more period (excuse me, "period") by 
scare-quoting words that were not schoolbook English in 1878, the year 
the novel is set (or 1928, when the story is ostensibly narrated), 
and would've been scare-quoted in the popular press of 
the day? Was he trying to replicate how the story would've been written 
had it been written in 1878 instead of 1968? Was he trying to imitate a 
letter from his grandmother? At least we can be thankful Kim Darby wasn't 
directed in the movie version to put every third word that came out of her 
mouth in air quotes or to utter quote-unquote before it. 

Despite ambassadors of air quotes like Chris Farley, air quotes aren't really scare quotes. Just as the term "quotes" is a back formation from "quotation marks," air quotes have become a physical action only through reading. In order to vocalize the kind of attitudes found in the papers, scare quotes had to be acted out, if only so eventually Farley could remind us: It's that kind of person who uses them in conversation now. Going from the already doubly ironic, quote-claws-out gesture of no-longer-sophisticated sophistication Chevy Chase modeled for on the cover of Spy magazine in the 1980s to Farley's manic and suicidal late '90s desperation is the same trajectory scare quotes have traveled in prose. Their surgical deployment in the work of A. J. Liebling gave way to Richard Meltzer's brutal and sarcastic garbage disposal grind-up of the would-be hipness he hated, and now we're mostly confronted with scare quotes in the papers we read at breakfast and on the menus of the diners where we eat it: three-egg "egg"-stravaganza, pancakes "with bacon," breakfast served "all day." It's a little conspiracy to make us doubt our eggs as much as we question the news, just like seeing the name "The Johnsons" on a mailbox makes us wonder who really lives there.

Stanley Walker, an editor of the New York Herald Tribune from 1926 to 1935, 
having scare-quoted lobster palace and social unrest in the same paragraph 
of his 1933 page-turner The Night Club Era, writes in his 1934 
memoir-as-style-guide City Editor that the "use of too many quotation marks to 
apologize for either a fresh or a trite phrase generally is a bad practice." 
And Jack Butts, a contemporary Nebraska newspaperman, reminds us, in an 
excellent little book from 1994 called The Language of the News, that "news 
writers should never insert their own attitudes or opinions by gratuitously 
placing quotation marks around words. First, this practice confuses readers, 
who may assume the words come from one of the persons being quoted. Second, 
readers don't care what the writer thinks and take the emphasis as a sarcastic 

Let's make a pledge right now. If you ever find you need quotation marks up against a word or phrase so you can tell a sarcastic insult from a straightforward one around here, let us know. We'll fix things right up. You want that shirt of vituperation, you won't have to "mess" with any typographical snakes to get it. And that's not any Mazola, friend: that's a promise.

[Previous Page] words
Slotcar Hatebath

Terry Colon

Slotcar Hatebath