Not so scare quotes. The ironized version of the ancient invention is a distinctly 20th-century phenomenon. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded use of “scare quote” came in 1956, from the Cambridge philosophy professor Elizabeth Anscombe, a young colleague of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s, in an issue of the journal Mind: “So nothing is or comes about by chance or ‘whichever happens,’” Anscombe wrote, of Aristotle’s text. She then clarified: “‘Whichever happens ’: the Greek phrase suggests both ‘as it may be’ and ‘as it turns out.’ ‘As the case may be’ would have been a good translation if it could have stood as a subject of a sentence. The “scare-quotes” are mine; Aristotle is not overtly discussing the expression ‘whichever happens.’”
The next year, in his Mental Acts: Their Content and Their Objects, Peter Geach, Anscombe’s collaborator (and, also, her husband), repeated the term: “There is indeed a particular tone of voice that is conventionally represented by using quotes,” Geach wrote, “as in ‘He introduced me to his “wife”’; but such quotes (which are sometimes called ‘scare-quotes’) are of course quite different from quotes used to show that we are talking about the expression they enclose.”
Geach continued: “In this work I have tried to follow a strict rule of using single quotes as scare-quotes, and double quotes for when I am actually talking about the expressions quoted.”
But then! To that last sentence the logician added a footnote: “There is very little practical risk of confusing the two uses of quotes,” Geach confessed, “so [the] reader may find this precaution rather like the White Knight’s armoring his horse’s legs against possible sharkbites. But once bitten, twice shy—I have actually been criticized in print for lack of ‘rigor’ because I used scare-quotes in a logical article without warning my readers that I was doing so.”
So Geach, one of the coiners of “scare quote,” warned against its misuse in the very act of coining the term. Geach tried to distinguish, graphically—single quotes meaning one thing, double meaning another—between quotes that are used simply to designate the declaration of terms and quotes that are used to signal the debate of those terms. He seemed to have anticipated, almost, how his coinage would become weaponized in the decades that followed—how scare quotes would have, as the Columbia Journalism Review noted in 2013, “exploded in recent years, being brought to bear especially in politics, as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ campaigns used their own ‘scare’ tactics.”
Geach couldn’t have anticipated the current moment of truthiness and post-factiness and generalized political postmodernism. Yet he seems to have hazily foreseen the media outlets serving up heady, hedged reports about the emboldening of the “alt-right.” And offering heated, but also notably lukewarm, discussions of “white supremacists.” And of “identity politics.” And of “fake news.” What, exactly, do the quotes around those terms mean—and how, exactly, do they affect the words that are coddled and/or stifled in their doubling embrace? What does “fake” mean, precisely, when applied to news? Invented? Incorrect? What about “‘fake’”? When the term “alt-right” comes to the American public swaddled in ironic quotation marks, should we be soothed … or, indeed, as Elizabeth Anscombe warned, scared?