The "right" definiution of " 'scare' quotes"

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Fri Aug 4 15:34:54 UTC 2000

Well, it will be fun to tell my Intro to Linguistics class next semester
about how even someone as brilliant and experienced as I am can walk around
for years with a slightly idiosyncratic definition in his head for a term of
art in his own profession and not notice that he was marching to a different

Jesse S defines SCARE QUOTES as "quotes placed around something to indicate
that the writer finds a particular term worthy of attention in some way."
YES!--and I've always assumed that "worthy of attention in some way" included
the desire merely to be emphatic (as well as ironic). Sol, I guess, do most
of the people who sell "fresh" vegetables.

Still, if Jesse and Lynne Murphy (not to mention the NEW OXFORD ENGLISH
DICTIONARY, which I have just consulted) says I'm "wrong" about the
definition of "scare" quotes, then I will just have to revise my mental
lexical entry. I have always used the term SCARE QUOTES to refer to any
quotation marks that do not appear actually to quote anybody, without speculat
ing as to the motive of the writer. I guess my overgeneralized interpretation
of the term stems from the very fact that there "is" no distinct, widely
known American term for purely emphatic quotation marks (except maybe
"emphatic quotation marks"?). That and the fact that using quotation marks
purely for emphasis seems pretty scaring to me. And the fact that it is often
not possible to tell the "scare" quotes from the "emphatic" quotes (can
anyone tell me which of the sets of quotation marks in my this paragraph are
"scare" quotes and which are "emphatic" quotes???--I must say, I like my
deviant usage even if it is "wrong").

So the sign-painter who wrote "HANDICAP" PARKING on the sign in my local
supermarket parking lot is not using scare quotes--unless she means to imply
that the parking place so designated is for anyone who might use one of those
special parking passes, whether actually qualified by disability or not?

Wow! and, for that matter, "Wow!"

In a message dated 8/4/2000 10:43:09 AM, jester at PANIX.COM writes:

<< You're nodding here, Ron! Scare quotes are different--these
are quotes placed around something to indicate that the writer
finds a particular term worthy of attention in some way (e.g.
the thing being quoted is not the usual term, or represents
a troublesome viewpoint, or whatever). _Scare quotes_ refer to
one possible correct use of quotes. >>

Lynne Murphy writes:

<<To me, scare quotes can be
paraphrased as 'so-called' or 'nudge-nudge, wink-wink'--they indicate
that the writer doesn't really intend the meaning or the attitude implied
by the phrasing.>>

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