Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What Scare Quotes Mean (FYI)

Recently on the Internet I've seen a few people express bafflement at what scare quotes (that is, quotation marks that don't designate a direct quote) mean. Here's one example, from a comment in the HTML Giant Language Over Body Shitstorm of Oh Ten: "I have trouble understanding quotes around words I wouldn’t normally put quotes around."

I assume this is a response to obsessive use of scare quotes in the style of Tao Lin. And hey, I'm not going to try to convince you to like this practice. But it seems a bit obtuse to claim you can't comprehend what it means. Perhaps these kids have never seen Chris Farley as Bennett Brauer?

For those who are genuinely confused, missed the '90s, etc.: You might as well be armed with the knowledge of what scare quotes mean, whether or not you choose to embrace them. So here's a list, probably not exhaustive, of things scare quotes can signify:
  • These are someone else's words, not mine
  • I'm using these words sarcastically
  • I'm using these words metaphorically
  • I'm making fun of people who use scare quotes with no irony
  • I'm making fun of people who overuse scare quotes
  • I'm making fun of Tao Lin
You're welcome.


  1. Scare quotes always remind me of the movie Say Anything. At the graduation party, a character named Sheila uses them when talking to Ione Skye & later in the film Ione Skye uses them around the word love when she breaks up with John Cusack.

    He knows what they signify, and he does not like seeing them used to dump him at all, at all.

    My sister & I use them extensively, partly out of deference to that scene. When one of us uses them the other always has to respond, "Why are you talking like that girl Sheila?" (It's one of the many memorable things said by Lloyd Dobler/John Cusack in the film.)

    My sister & I have small lives sometimes.

  2. Maybe people who don't know what scare quotes mean have never seen Say Anything, either.

    BTW. I misremembered Farley's Matt Foley Inspirational Speaker character (the guy who shouts "I live in a VAN down by the RIVER!!") as the one who uses air quotes all the time, but I was wrong. Several people on Twitter just confirmed that this is a collective mismemory.

  3. If enough people misremember something, the false memory becomes more real than the actual real event, right? This is the nature of simulacra.

  4. I'll also use them when I'm talking about something another person said, when I'm trying to make clear that the other person didn't have a clue as to what he or she was talking about. For example, when a young-Earth Creationist tries to debunk evolution and misuses the term, well, any term really.

  5. I'm confused by other people's confusion. Who doesn't know this?!

  6. Same, so I suspect that people are pretending not to know out of some kind of false superiority? Pretty wack.

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  8. I dunno, the advent of the internet has shown me that there is a large group of people who don't understand something no matter how easy it is to understand.

    I remember reading a message board which was meant to explain jokes from shows. The most common misunderstood jokes posted? Ones in which the humor was most self evident. The answer to all these people were that no, they get it, it's just not funny.

    I feel like that's what's happening here. These people either believe they are above the logic of using scare quotes, or perhaps they truly are, and therefore believe they must not get their meaning.

    I may have confused myself in even trying to think like that. Augh.

  9. i think it comes down to a lack of a sense of humor

  10. This is a good post. I 'find' it useful.

  11. Now you've got me wondering why they're called "scare quotes."

    (Or, alternately, "why" they're "called" "scare" "quotes.")

    Maybe I should "look" it "up" somewhere.

  12. I always interpreted it as meaning the user is afraid you'll think he/she is using the term literally, without distance, etc.


  13. I'd interpret it as originating in the person being afraid of what they're putting in the quotes. Something like:

    I don't know about these kids and their "rock and roll" music!

    Does this computer come with that "Internet"?