Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How Air Quotes have “Changed” Our Lives

Sincerity is important in communication.


We live in one of the most cynical and verbally combative periods of history, fueled by advanced communication technology and declining intellect.

One of the hallmarks of this “golden age” is the use of air quotes by speakers who want to convey connotations that they likely could express with a snitty tone of voice.

Thank goodness America’s “founding fathers” weren’t as jaded as we, the strained seed of their democratic loins, are. Imagine if Thomas Jefferson had stood before the Continental Congress to read aloud the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, with the addition of air quotes:

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”.
…which suddenly, thanks to air quotes, makes “pursuit of happiness” sound like a euphemism.

Air quotes are used to express satire, sarcasm, irony, or euphemism. (Incidentally, I recently heard from a fellow Toastmaster from a journalistic background that they are also called “quotey fingers”.)

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.

My “research” shows that air quotes have been in sporadic use since at least the 1920s in the U.S., but they didn’t have a name until the 1980s. Merriam-Webster added the phrase “air quotes” to the Dictionary in 1989 with the definition of “a gesture made by raising and flexing the index and middle fingers of both hands, used to call attention to a spoken word or expression.”

Air quotes are significant, because they change how we interpret a message.

There have been some famous air quotes, for example, in episodes of Friends, like the one where Danny DeVito plays a male stripper, Ross reminisced with Missy, a woman on whom he had a crush during college. He asked her if she remembered his then roommate, Chandler. She said, “Sure, he was in your 'band'." (Using air quotes around "band".)
Ross replies “It's been sixteen years but the air quotes still hurt.”

Plus there was the episode where Joey misuses air quotes, but after Ross punches a pole, Joey finally uses air quotes correctly.
Or how about the “hot mess” when Dateline interviewed Britney Spears where she overused and misused air quotes so frequently that was the subject of, like, a “buhjillion” blogs the next day.

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.”

The fact that he chose to use air quotes on such a sensitive topic in general was probably unwise, linking him to a certain level of flippancy about an issue that divides “reasonable people”.

In print, these are known as “scare quotes” or “sneer quotes”, when a writer doesn’t agree with the words in the quotes and wants to distance him- or herself from those words in the quotation marks. For example, in an email to your boss, you might explain why your co-worker didn’t help you complete a project by writing, “He said he was ‘too busy’.” Meaning you didn’t believe that your co-worker was busy at all, and you wanted your boss to know it.

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

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’!”


  1. OK, I've been known to use air quotes now and again. . . One day, when talking with a friend who is blind, I realized I needed to tell her I was using air quotes. Her response was, "Huh?" So I had to fill her in on what she's been missing.

  2. Quotie fingers. Gonna use that...from now on!!!!