We live in one of the most cynical and verbally combative periods of history, fueled by advanced communication technology and declining intellect.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the “pursuit of Happiness”.
Many English speakers use air quotes routinely, but that is not the case everywhere in the world; in fact, air quotes stymie some learners of English who initially think that a speaker is imitating a rabbit. I suppose this could suggest that the English-speaking world ranks highest on the cynicism spectrum, and for those of us of Scandinavian descent, air quotes are just about the only hand gestures approved by the Sons of Norway.
In the movie “Austin Powers”, Dr. Evil said that he developed a ‘sophisticated heat beam which we called a "laser". Using these "lasers," we punch a hole in the protective gas layer around the world, which we call the "ozone layer."
The award for the air quote that was heard around the world, though, has to go to Senator John McCain for his October 15th 2008 debate with Barack Obama. Senator McCain got himself into some hot water with air quotes. The topic was abortion, and McCain was saying that Obama was hiding his support for late-term abortions under the guise of a concern for the mother’s “health”.
He said, “That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, health
After my “extensive research” on this topic, I have concluded that thanks to “air quotes” and “scare quotes”, many people now suspect anything that they see in quotation marks. Consider some of the examples from an “amusing” blog site called unnecessaryquotes.com.
I believe that people who make these signs may be using the quotation marks to emphasize a word, or to imply a different “voice” saying a particular phrase, as if their mascot suddenly was speaking.
These examples demonstrate, though, that the words in quotation marks can have the exact opposite affect from what the author intended, and I believe that this is, in part, because of air quotes. How they’ve become so ubiquitous, making us cynical about anything in quotation marks.
There are so many ways that the messages we put on signs, in brochures, and in our daily interpersonal exchanges can be misinterpreted. Air quotes fill a need for us literal-minded English speakers, to emphasize that “hey! I’m being sarcastic here! Don’t take me ‘seriously’!”