They call them “scare quotes.”
Excuse me. I just had to pause at the irony of putting “scare quotes” in “scare quotes.” Except that’s not really ironic. I’m sorry. Spoiler alert.
So, they call them “scare quotes.” Who are “they”? I don’t know. Probably the “people” that come up with all the sayings that begin with, “You know what they say.” And why do they call them that? Who knows? I spent a good several hours on the internet last night trying to find a source that answered that question. I found thousands of sources that asked it, but none that answered it.
When I conceived of this article, I was going to propose “we” come up with a new “name” for them. Something like “cynical quotes” or “sceptical quotes.” But, then I realised that they aren’t really any different from “real” quotes. There’s no criteria to distinguish these quotes from others.
“You” might say that “real” quotes are a quote from a specific person. But, then would that make, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still” a “scare” quote. I mean, “obviously” someone said that “first.” But “we” don’t know who did. We’re quoting a “lot” of people there.
Just like when I talk about the customer “service” department. I’m quoting the department that falsely named itself to give the illusion of the service that it goes out of its way to avoid providing. I’m not even necessarily quoting a specific company, but I’m quoting “someone,” or I wouldn’t have put it in quotes.
If I talk about “smart phones,” I’m quoting the “telecommunications” industry when they try to sell underpowered computers that might as well be called “the Swiss army knife of electronics.” Okay, that last one was my quote. But, you know what “they” say about “smart phones” and Swiss army knives. “They” say, “A jack of all trades is a master of none.” Is that a “scare quote”? Why wouldn’t it be when “smart phone” would be?
One might say that it’s a “scare” quote when the author is distancing himself from the words rather than attributing them to another source. Whatever the motivation for attributing the words to another source, you’re still attributing the words to another source. A “suicide” bomber’s intention is not to die, but that doesn’t change the fact that he still dies by his own actions. It’s not my intention to credit the “military” for their use of the word, “defence,” but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s what I’m doing when I put “defence” in quotes, “scare” or otherwise.
Sure, I can always just use my own words for these things. I can say, “customer enforcement,” “dumb computer,” and “murder,” and I’d be accurately representing the word by calling things by their proper names, but I’d also raise confusion among people who are so used to hearing the colloquial lies that they’ve never heard something called by its “proper” name.
So, in quoting a group of people or society at large, I may be using their words to avoid confusion while distancing myself from said words, but I’m still quoting them. It’s not an independent form of punctuation. And, while you may be “annoyed” when I put words or phrases in quotes, you’re certainly not “scared” by them.
Considering no one knows why they’re called “scare quotes,” we need to stop calling them that. Would you jump off a cliff without knowing why? Then why would you use a phrase and not know why?