"scare" quotes?

I keep seeing people here talking about scare quotes and I am not sure where this came from and exactly what it is supposed to mean. Anyone?

Also scare words.


I was “blessed” with the occasion to look at a WorldNetDaily story on California’s Proposition 8 earlier today, through a link on another board. Here’s the lead paragraph:

Note the words in quotation marks as an example of the use of scare quotes.

I thought we used double quotes " for direct quotation, and single quotes ’ for scare quotes. But maybe that’s just me.

What I would like to know is, why are they called scare quotes? Why ‘scare’?

I am familiar with quotes and how to abuse them. I do a bit of it myself (on occasion and only against the bad guys, I promise). My question is more about the term “scare quotes” itself. Why “scare”, what scary about them? Is this a new term? I don’t think I remember seeing it until maybe a month or two ago and now “everybody” is using it. Where did this come from?

I don’t understand it either. I’ve always called them “sneer quotes,” which seems much more apt.

I think the Wikipedia article gives a good summary of the term:

In other words, they’re supposed to “scare” you with regard to the term being quoted.

I agree the use has become more frequent, but the term is much older than that.

Here’s a May 2002 use from a George Will column:

…so quotes are actually little penises, who knew? :slight_smile:

Here’s a May 2002 use of scare quotes term from a George Will column: Quote:…’‘scare quotes are obligatory among postmodernists’’

‘‘This doesn’t seem right, but I checked the archives and found the term
in the Washington Post all of twice: In a 2001 book review and a 2002
George Will column.’’

Dan Bloom in Taiwan is now investigating scare quotes re:

  1. who coined the term and when
    2, why and where was the term first coined
    3, sources say it began in academia among PHD philosophers in UK
  2. 1946 book by Carey McWilliams about “California” contains first known ref online in USA
  3. Peter Plagents used term in 1993 Newsweek article

SCARE QUOTES: who coined the term?

Tom McGeveren, editor at CapitalNewYork, likes the scare quotes term so much he often uses it in headlines he writes
for the online news outlet. AND HE IS NOT THE OTHER NEWS EDITOR WHO LOVES THE TERM, others too: google for more but see here–


‘‘Sequels to sex scandals, with scare quotes and without’’

and another headline went like this

‘‘Scare Quotes Return for ‘‘Rape Cop’’ Victim Story’’

Scott Cutler Shershow - Scare Quotes from Shakespeare: Marx …muse.jhu.edu/journals/shakespeare_quarterly/…/53.4shershow.htmlSimilar
You +1’d this publicly. Undo
by SC Shershow - 2002
Although he acknowledges in passing that his particular idea of the scare quote has some affinity with Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence (14), …

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scare Quotes But Were Too
Scared to Ask
Tom McGerevan says that if he ever sees an OpEd piece about scare
quotes in the New York Times he will eat his hat. Mark Reed says it’s
called a “scare quote” because it connotes that the quoted item is
somehow “scary” – nonstandard, abnormal, different in a somewhat
threatening way, and that social activists might call it ‘‘lexical
Othering’’. John Lawler says popular phrases are rarely “coined” by a
single person and nobody ‘‘knows’’ who the first person to say or
write ‘‘scare quotes’’ was. Stan Carey says that scare quotes are
placed around words or phrases from which writers want to distance


Evertyhing u ever wted to know about SCARE quotes full text

To ‘‘scare quote’’ or not to ‘‘scare quote’’, that is the “question”
To ‘‘scare quote’’ or not to ‘‘scare quote’’, that is the “question”

by ''Maureen Dowd"

The use, over-use and meta-use of so-called ‘‘scare quotes’’ has gotten ‘‘out of hand’’, and the only way to ‘‘scare up’’ an answer to all this is to ask 4 ‘‘questions’’, namely:

  1. Who coined this ‘‘rabid term’’ and when and why?
  2. Is there a better term for this kind of ‘‘punctuation thing’’?
  3. Many people, myself included, do not really ‘‘know’’ the meaning of the term or why the word “scare” is part of it. Any guesses?
  4. Given the first three questions, is there then perhaps maybe a better term for this ‘‘thing’’ we see in newspapers and magazines every day, even in New York Times headlines and letters to the editor, and what might that new term be? Any suggestions on what we should call the ‘‘new and improved’’ term?

An Open Letter to the editors of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times,
The Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, and why not, the Boston Globe, too:

Dear ‘‘Editors’’, if I may call you that!

Do you know what a scare quote is and why it is called a scare quote? And not a square quote? Jon Stewart calls them dick quotes and a professor in Boston calls them prophylactic quotes and Tom McGeveran at the Capital New York site uses the term liberally even in headlines, for crying out loud!

So, even though very few readers know what in the world a scare quote is, or why the word SCARE is
part of the term, why continue to use this meaningless academic term in general readership newspapers?
It’s slanguage. Do you know who coined it or why or when? Ask around. Knock on William Safire’s door and see what he has to say. Isn’t it time for TIME and Newsweek to retire scare quotes as a term and come up with something better, something more meaningful, such as “quote unquote quotess” or “call-out quotes.”?

You owe it to your readers to stop using the term “scare quotes” and call them by a better name.


Daniel Webster Bloom


"Society and hegemonies within it have ways of ostracizing certain people
and ideas that appear threatening, and whether those threats are just
perceived or actual, ridicule is generally the tool of choice.

''Supporting and exacerbating a perception that a certain person, a group
of people, an ideology, a political initiative, etc., is a threat, is in
effect nurturing “Othering”, or giving something the perception or label
of “not us”, “not normative”, “not natural”, or “not right”.

''Ostracized or subjugated subgroups, whether they be women, blacks,
foreigners, gays, liberals, etc.; and vilified or demonized ideas,
whether they be universal suffrage, progressive fiscal notions as to how
to restructure an economy, ramped up immigration quotas, gay marriage,
legalization of pot, etc., can end up cowering in social or ideological
corners when up against the tyranny of the majority - or at least the
tyranny of a strong special interest group, one that has enough momentum
and resources behind it.

''The term ‘other’ has been well deployed over time, and though I’ve never
read “othering”, as a present continuous verb, before, I like it because
it foregrounds the fact that it’s a willful process. It’s premeditated,
it has a spoken or unspoken agenda, and it goes on at a progressive

‘‘Fast forward to scare quotes, and air quotes, within whose boundaries all of the above
goes on in textual form. Same old insidious lording it over others; and
age-old lexical technique, really, simply putting quotes around
something to isolate it for rhetorical purposes, to be sure… but
accelerated and popularized by virtue of meme propagation.
So yeah, that’s why I like the term “lexical Othering”… [And I apologize in
advance for all the, uh, lexis…]’’

‘‘Scare quotes’’ are a type of ‘‘graffiti’’
‘‘Scare quotes are a type of graffiti. Air quotes, at least, are non-destructive to material property.’’
We asked the writer of the above line, a PR guy for many years, if we could quote that line above here and he said: "Use away, mon frere! And don’t even bother quoting me - unless you want to “distance yourself”. LOL!

No, that wasn’t passive-aggressive; I’m not a writer with proprietary concerns, and I think it’d be a better world if all ideas were public property.

The mind boggles as to how many chunks of the above sentence could have been ‘‘scare-quoted’’ - and how many different messages could have been inferred as a result.

Then, just at that point, he realized that scare quotes don’t even convey specific opinions - they’re just blanket condemnations of things that the reader/listener would feel reticent to question. He imagined if he were the air-quoter, he’d likely be ready to roll his eyeballs in a “well if you don’t know, …” manner at whatever forthcoming remonstrative, critical or even quizzical response.

Such was the “resolution” of his email.

RE: "…I’m starting to see how this kind of rhetorical device of SCARE QUOTES is a tool
more suited to a conservative than a liberal agenda.
Liberals tend to be more socially open-minded, more willing to give
new things a try, whereas conservatives dread diversity - it’s what they do.
So when social innovations are introduced by way of political
progression, the more conservative folks, those who see them as
new-fangled, need a gesture to express their disapproval; hence, the
It seems to be the product of a way of thinking that things should be
the way they’ve always been.
Scare quotes are a type of graffiti. Air quotes, at least, are
non-destructive to material property…’’