“Scare quotes” make “haunted” not-so-scary

Monday, October 28, 2013
by Adriana Miano

With the month of October advancing toward its spooky end, Halloween enthusiasts are flocking to pumpkin patches, costume shops, and a variety of “haunted” attractions. The ghosts, ghouls and zombies may be an illusion and haunted house attractions can be great for a scare – but did you know that there’s a “scare” in English punctuation (other than in suspecting that you might be using the wrong punctuation)?  It’s found in “scare quotes.”

Jess and Nina follow their guide into the darkened hallway. As they move cautiously past a series of closed doors, they hear the howling of “werewolves” and the moaning of “ghosts.” At the end of the hall, they are faced with a sign warning them that “danger” lies through the doorway ahead. Draped in tattered caution tape, the sign claims that the east wing of the house is “condemned.” Unfazed by the trappings of the “haunted” house, Jess and Nina cross the threshold and find themselves surrounded by “zombies,” “vampires,” and an old, disheveled “witch,” stirring a cauldron of “magic potion.”

In writing, we commonly use quotations marks for certain titles or to show that someone is speaking.  But scare quotes are quotation marks used around words that don’t strictly require them.  They express skepticism or deviation from the literal meaning of the enclosed word or phrase. In popular culture, there’s been a common adaption of scare quotes into conversation.  We make “air quotes” with our fingers to indicate that we’re speaking ironically, or adding emphasis to a sarcastic remark. They show that, although we’re using a certain word, we’re not buying into its usual meaning.  An equivalent in speech might be “so-called.”

Though the origin of the term is not officially known, many speculate that this punctuation was dubbed “scare quotes” because the speaker is apprehensive about the enclosed term’s literal meaning. Thus, the quotes have a precautionary usage, and provide a disclaimer for potentially deceptive language.  And someone who writes about global warming as “global warming” is definitely implying a “so-called” aspect to its use.  That is, they don’t buy into the concept that global warming is real.  Hmm.  That’s pretty scary.

Scare quotes may also serve to negate the enclosed word or phrase, the way kids might following up a sentence, after a dramatic pause, with the word “not,” indicating that the experience they’ve described has not had its intended effect on them.

During a holiday centered on trickery and spooky illusions, it’s important to distinguish the literal from the figurative. While you might want to avoid haunted houses on Halloween, you’ll probably be safe within a “haunted” one. 

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That was very interesting!  Thanks for sharing.

By Robin Murphy on 10/29/2013 at 9:56 am


By Lisa on 10/31/2013 at 11:14 am

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