This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Nuts and Bolts: scare quotes.

Find punctuation scary?

You should do.

Okay you may not get mugged by a semi-colon in a dark alley, but those scare quotes, eh?

Yep. They're enough to send a shiver down the spine of a menopausal, thermal-underwear-wearing polar bear.

I can't deny that people find scare quotes useful. They make it easy to be sarcastic, ironic, or scornful; to make it plain that ordinary-people-may-think-that-but-I'm-much-too-sophisticated-and-wise-to-entertain-the-notion-for-a-minute.

As in: I have 500 "friends" on Facebook.

The army "liberated" the city.

The Folk Dancers "entertained" their audience.

Scare quotes are also the only bit of punctuation which is regularly expressed in sign language.

So what's not to like?

Well, firstly if you do the sign-language scare quote thing people will think you're a dork. Secondly, with the miracle, delicacy and infinite variety of language at your command, why brutalise it with the sledge hammer of scare quotes?

Because it's easy?

Oh all right, then.

Fair enough.

Word To Use Today: scare. This word comes from the Old Norse skirra.

The phrase scare quotes was coined in the 1940s or 1950s, but there is no agreement as to who was the first person to use it.


  1. Well said and well written. I am doing mega online research MOR on the whole scare quotes thing, and I am now convinced that the term was coined in the UK in the 1920s or even late 1890s, although its first reference in USA is in a book about California in 1946. But certainly the term was not coined for that book, so the term is much older. Sources tell me some PHD philosophy professors in the UK coined it for their own in-joke use. But it caught on and is now so embedded in our culture as to be ''scary". Mark Silk says better to call them CAVEAT QUOTES, since the word SCARE in the term has no real meaning to us today. See my 101 blog posts on this at blogspot101 under ''interview-with-scare-quotes-man''

  2. THANK YOU, Dan.

    Praise from Sir Hubert is praise indeed.

    Yes, I can see why Mark Silk prefers 'caveat quotes' to 'scare quotes' but, I don't know, I wonder if this is giving them just slightly more respect than they deserve.

    Thanks again for your fascinating comment, and good luck with your research.