Earlier this month, the New York Times reported on Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who is a leader of the alt-right movement. Spencer, the paper noted in its summary, “calls himself a part of the ‘alt-right’—a new term for an informal and ill-defined collection of internet-based radicals.”

The Times, in this instance, used quotation marks to make clear that “alt-right” is not just a term of discussion, but a term of contention: Do not, the floating commas make clear, take this at face value. The story was one more piece of writing that relied on humble quotation marks, during and especially in the aftermath of an election that so often framed facts themselves as matters of debate, to do a lot of heavy lifting—not just as indications of words that are spoken, but as indications of words that are doubted. “Alt-right,” in recent months, joined “fake news” and “post-truth” and “politically correct” and “identity politics” and “normalization” and many, many other buzzterms of this contentious political moment: It got, in the media, scare-quoted.

Scare quotes (also known, even more colorfully, as “shudder quotes” and “sneer quotes”) are identical to standard quotation marks, but do precisely the opposite of what quotation marks are supposed to do: They signal irony, and uncertainty. They suggest words that don’t quite mean what they claim to. “Question,” they say. “Doubt,” they dare. They are, as Greil Marcus recently said, “a writer’s assault on his or her own words.” They signal—really, they celebrate—epistemic uncertainty. They take common ground and suggest that it might, but only just “might,” be made of quicksand.

That signaling is relatively new, though, and in its own way ironic. Quotation marks, for much of their history, represented precisely the opposite of all that chaos: They suggested, even promised, rationality and objectivity—the triumph of the written word as a means of mediating the world. They developed, the linguistic anthropologist Ruth Finnegan argues in her 2011 book Why Do We Quote? The Culture and History of Quotation, in response to the modernist notion that ideas could be separated from their authors and their speakers—and were so significant in that regard, she notes, that many have seen them as “one of the great achievements in human history.” But quotation marks’ ironized permutations are decidedly less great. Those little, hovering semicircles, doubled and curved and opened and closed, suggest not an ordered world, but its inverse: instability, uncertainty, the lack of an axis. In that, scare quotes are elegantly revealing of the moment that gave rise to them. They are the punctuation of the post-truth “post-truth” age.

Quotation marks vary, in their appearances, across languages. German has „“, and » «, and ‹ › to indicate quotation; it also, along with French, Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese, and many more languages, uses the « », or guillemets (named after the 16th-century French printer Guillaume Le Bé). Those marks, like their English counterparts, all evolved from a single origin: the ancient Greek mark known as the diple (“double”). It looked like this: >. And it was added to the margins of texts not to suggest quotation, but rather to signal significance—a kind of proto-underlining. In the same way that many scare quotes today are used, delightfully, simply to call attention to a word or phrase or name—“Happy Birthday, ‘Stephanie,’” a card will say, probably not meaning to cause poor Stephanie existential anxiety; “‘Food & Beverage,’” a sign will announce, pointing the way to the “edible” goods—the diple served to draw attention to a document’s most important words and sections. It persisted in that role for centuries, even after the advent of print. (Gutenberg’s Bible, notably, features no quotation marks.)

It was the rise of the novel in the 18th century, Finnegan argues in Why Do We Quote?—and of romanticism, with its emphasis on the value and the validity of the individual voice—that helped quotation marks to take their modern form. As literature (and, with it, literacy) spread, printers availed themselves of a graphical variation of the diple—still doubled, but with the hash marks now separated—to indicate the authors’ reporting of others’ experiences. The new marks may well have been, Finnegan notes, “a necessary part of modernization, with its ability to separate out the words of others within a logical system that facilitates abstraction and precision.” They arose with democratization—and are, in many ways, necessary for democracy. They allow people to talk to each other, and a nation to talk to itself.

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?

The answers are—and this is the problem—unclear. Scare quotes, used for purposes of mordancy or obscurity or something in between, are inherently ambiguous. They are ironic in the most basic sense—they say one thing while meaning another—but they are ironic, too, in a broader way: They inject doubt into the action of the saying itself. They can confuse readers, and can whiff of intellectual indolence. (“The scare quote,” Jonathan Chait wrote in The New Republic, in 2008, “is the perfect device for making an insinuation without proving it, or even necessarily making clear what you’re insinuating.”) A 2010 parody of science journalism in The Guardian summed it up like so: “In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of ‘scare quotes’ to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.”

Or, as Keith Houston, the author of Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, told me: “I’ve heard scare quotes described as tongs.” They allow for a kind of moral distancing—for someone to touch a contentious idea without fully engaging with it (or, indeed, getting dirty by association).

Scare quotes can also, on the other hand—invoking the “sneer” more than the “scare”—suggest partisanship on the part of the scare-quoter. To put terms like “identity politics” or “rape culture” or, yes, “alt-right” in scare quotes is not just to highlight those terms as matters of open debate, and thus to place them within the sphere of legitimate controversy; it is also to make, in that placement, a political declaration. Scare quotes can be inviting to some readers and alienating to others. In 2014, Slate declared hashtags to be “the new scare quotes” (on the grounds that both devices represent “a strategy for announcing distance”); the comparison proved apocryphal, but it did highlight the way the sharing of irony, whether by way of hovering commas or cross-hatched little lines, can signal, and serve, the niche at the expense of the collective.

So what’s to be done to mitigate that? One solution could be to replace the scare quote with another fraught-but-also-comparatively-less-fraught device: the hyperlink. Digital writing, instead of scare-quoting “alt-right,” could simply link to the comprehensive and nuanced definitions of the movement provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center, or the Anti-Defamation League, or even Wikipedia. They could point to this video of the alt-right in action.

Another solution could be to follow the advice of the literary critic I.A. Richards, who in 1968, a decade after Peter Geach’s attempt to streamline the meanings of quotation marks, declared that “we overwork this too serviceable writing device,” and tried to introduce more specific options into the English vernacular. (Richard offered nine iterations, all of them adopting the open-mark/closed-mark formula, including “?— ?” (indicating the sense of a query), “i — i” (indicating ambiguity), and “! — !” (indicating a tone of disbelief—the contemporary sense of the scare quote).

Or you could just adhere to the words of the Associated Press, which allows, in its guide to discussing the “alt-right,” that the term “may be used in quotes or modified as in the ‘self-described’ or ‘so-called alt-right’ in stories discussing what the movement says about itself,” but which also cautions to

avoid using the term generically and without definition, however, because it is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience. In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi, or white supremacist ….

We should not limit ourselves to letting such groups define themselves, and instead should report their actions, associations, history, and positions to reveal their actual beliefs and philosophy, as well as how others see them.

Language, certainly, evolves, and in many ways it bends toward ambiguity. So scare quotes, to be sure, are in one way simply a part of the same movement that found “literally” now meaning both “literally” and “not at all literally,” and that finds 🙏  suggesting both praying and high-fiving, and that allows 👯   to suggest both two gals, twinning, and two Playboy bunnies, bunnying. Words and the things they wear to be fit to be seen in public are complicated and stubbornly dynamic; quotation marks that have been repurposed to indicate debate rather than declaration are in one way just another, innocuous reminder of that.

But—and here is the “to be sure” to the “to be sure”—those little marks, hovering miasmically over our civic discourse, also suggest, in the aggregate, the unsettling fragility of language. Scare quotes aren’t just about distance; they’re also about disruption. They are a little bit belligerent, and a little bit anarchic. They want to destabilize, to make us question the things we thought we shared—indeed, to question who the “we” really is in the first place. Scare quotes suggest that the atomic unit of democracy—the word, with a meaning that is commonly understood—may no longer be fully stable. If words needn’t be taken literally, after all, how, exactly, can they be taken? And if we can’t agree on the meanings of words, then what else, really, can we—can “we”—possibly hope to agree on?