"Scare quotes" aren't scary; they are a healthy extension of the use-mention distinction!

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2013/10/18, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2013/10/18/10457318.aspx


Back on June 19, 2012, reader Danny Bloom put a question in the Suggestion Box:

''SCARE QUOTES'' ''SCARE'' THE ''HELL'' OUT OF ''ME'' !!!

On the origins of the term "scare quote" as newsroom term:

DOES ''ANYONE'' HAVE ANY ''IDEA'' WHO ''COINED'' THE TERM ......''SCARE QUOTES''..... AND WHY AND WHEN?

A LANGUAGE ''EXPERT'' AT STANFORD, [privacy for now but initials are AZ],WHO BLOGS AT LANGUAGE LOG TELLS ME:

Dear Sir

The OED2 draft addition Sept. 2004 has it from 1956; the first two cites

are both from philosophers:

1956   Mind 65 3   The ‘scare-quotes’ are mine; Aristotle is not

overtly discussing the expression ‘whichever happens’.

1960   P. T. Geach in M. Brand Nature of Human Action (1970) 119

Someone.might use ‘happy’, in scare-quotes so to say, to mean ‘what

most people count happy, that is rich’.

(but that doesn't tell us who ''coined'' it -- and it could have been a

translation from another language, like ''German'', my ''friend'' at Stanford adds)

Sorry it took so long for me to get to you, Danny Bloom!

I have been busy!

In the end, "Scare Quotes" aren't scary at all, as you pointed out. They are merely different stops on the path if the Use-Mention distinction.

As mentioned in the Wikipedia article describes at length, some usages are meant to be ironic, while others serve to distance the author from the information being quoted or even cast outright doubt about it.

They have very little in common with each other, unless you count the fact that they don't translate very well between languages, which is where I get involved, I suppose...

I could try to isolate why the "Scare Quotes" usages don't tend to translate so well, but that is mainly because humor/humour doesn't translate very well most of the time. Which is not the fault of humor itself, it is just the wry fact that the easiest way to take the funny out of a joke is to try to explain it..

Make sense? It is really as simple as that, possibly simpler even.

The folks over at Language Log covered "Scare Quotes" many times, in blogs like this one and this one and this other one and lots more.

Clearly, they've never met a fun "Scare Quotes" reference they didn't like.... 😏

I try to avoid them myself, an occupational hazard of being someone far too interested in World-Readiness to want to get bogged down in untranslatable things, with interesting linguistic issues of only secondary importance importance on slower days... 😏😊😏


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