This is a practice extremely prevalent on conspiracy theory blogs and social media (a.k.a., conspiracy theory blogs), but where did the concept of discrediting opponents with quotation marks come from?

The quotation marks are often put around the nouns referring to one's opponent, or sometimes to parts of their view.

For example:

According to "scientists", vaccinations are the number one way to prevent disease, however...


This guy I hate "knows" that that thing I hate is such and such...

I've now learned that this tactic is referred to as "scare-quotes". My question isn't about the origin of the phrase "scare-quotes" (this question), but rather, when did the tactic of using scare-quotes become a common practice?

  • It is simply a way of expressing scepticism. In the countries mostly represented here people have the freedom to express scepticism if they wish, do they not?
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 17:19
  • @WS2, of course they can; my question is where did the practice come from? Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 17:22
  • I was recently in an email argument, in which my opponent characterized my daily paper, The Guardian, as a 'left-wing rag'. When I asked for an example of its bias, he replied, "The Guardian's 'coverage' of anything to do with Israel." In my response, I pointed out that the marks around the word coverage were nothing more than a sneer. Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 17:24
  • My understanding is that the "standardization" (scary term) of "minor" punctuation such as quotation marks is a relatively recent thing. Prior to movable type folks were free to insert any sort of "punctuation" that they wished, and, to the extent that something resembling quotation marks was used, the use was pretty "loosey-goosey" and a personal matter. So probably the better question is "When did (what we currently call) quotation marks become largely reserved for quotations, vs other sorts of emphasis?"
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 19:41
  • See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scare_quotes Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 10:46

2 Answers 2


Very similar to what you describe for written text is the use of air quotes when speaking. In my opinion, as air quotes mimic the typographic symbol of quotation marks, the ironic or discrediting use of quotation marks has to have come into play before air quotes did.

This site is able to date back the use of air quotes to 1927.

Of course one could argue there is a difference between ironic quotes and scare-quotes, but I believe they are closely related, as the act of "marking something as possibly ironic" is a nice method to have the discrediting quote sound a little less offensive.

  • This is very close to what I was looking for, and possibly the closest we can possibly get; well done! Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 21:26

Scare quotes are often used in the same contexts where you might use the phrase so-called to indicate skepticism or sarcasm. It seems likely to me that this notation is a form of abbreviation of this, they both refer to the literal name that someone or something is called by.

For more about so-called, see

Does "so called" have a negative connotation in English?

What is the difference between "alleged" and "so-called"?

  • 5
    To expand on your point, so-called is used to indicate sarcasm, but what it literally says is that something is so (in such a manner) called (named) by someone else. In other words, you’re really quoting someone’s exact words when you say so-called. And quoting direct speech is of course precisely what quotes are for. So scare quotes are really quoting something as direct speech, quite like regular quoting, only with the emphasis that you’re using quotes in order to emphasise that what you’re quoting is not your own words, but someone else’s (that you don’t agree with). Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 18:28
  • I didn't want to go into detail about what so-called means, since it's covered adequately in the questions I linked to. My point is mainly that scare quotes are used similarly.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 19:08
  • Even with @J's important comment the answer still doesn't address the question "when did the tactic of using scare-quotes become a common practice?"
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 9:44

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