The Jawbone of a Scare Quote
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.
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.
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.