A punctuational malapropism frequently used by illiterate people attempting to communicate in print, as in "made 'fresh' daily", "open 'Sunday' ", etc. (see illiteracy as a moral imperative, desktop publishing). This practice is to be applauded since it provides us smirking elitists with a stiff shot of smug superiority many times each day: The only sane reading of such abused quotation marks is as "so-called" "scare quotes", which is always hilarious.

The importance of this is that there are several ways to indicate emphasis in written English, but not so many ways to signify the skepticism implied by scare quotes (another being to prepend the much-abused phrase "so-called"; I can't think of a third offhand). Only by knowing the writer can we be sure whether we're in the hands of a smartass or a moron. We are narrowing the range of meaning which can be conveyed by the language. With sufficient effort and dedication, we will eventually reduce language to a form of point-and-grunt communication like that of animals: A cat meows to get your attention, and then stares intently at something. If you know cats well enough, you can often deduce what s/he wants. In the near future, humans will utter streams of arbitrary boilerplate gibberish at each other, studded with a few concrete nouns. We'll pluck the nouns out of the stream and try to guess what that person might want with those objects on that particular day, in that particular place, etc. If we guess correctly, our interlocutor will confirm our guess by picking lice out of our pelt and eating them. If we guess wrong, our interlocutor will display aggression by screaming and flinging feces. We will placate him by handing over a banana or a diploma, depending on context.
My favorite example of ethnic-restaurant English that's been mangled, without actually messing with its grammar, didn't actually use quotes - it was just two big-red-lettered signs in the window. They read: NEW CHEF. GOOD FOOD.

But back to the point: those quotes, on restaurant menus, seem to particularly irk the sort of person who's cynical. That is, the sort of person who would use scare quotes in the first place. Rather than hammering away at the chink in English's armor that will make the whole language fall apart, quotes that attempt to denote emphasis are just eliminating, very slowly, the usefulness of scare quotes. This may be the price our culture pays for the irony bender we went on in the 1990's - scare quotes are being destroyed by clueless sincerity.

There's another way of looking at those restaurant-menu quotes, that makes them make a little more sense. They turn scare quotes from a mean-spirited, larcenous packaging into... well, just packaging. As meaningless and disposable as real packaging. If you look at Japanese culture, and the way so many Japanese snacks-and-such are packaged a little excessively for the extra feeling of swankness it imparts, the quote thing becomes more understandable. Or, for that matter, read an American news magazine and note the way nothing is accepted as true and authoritative unless it comes packaged in quotes, out of the mouth of some expert or another.

Although I worry about the state of “fresh” seafood, and in particular “live” lobsters (are they undead? ), I have come to the conclusion that, what with all the mark-ups on consumer goods in stores today, a “Sale” is exactly what the quotation marks imply—“so called”, but not really. Consider the following:

When my mother was a teenager, in the mid-50’s, she worked in a general store. A mom and pop, small town, we-carry-everything kind of place. Periodically, the proprietor would put up signs indicating certain items, proclaiming TODAY ONLY! (or perhaps, for variety, THIS WEEK ONLY!), and would raise the prices on said items. Nowhere did it say “sale”, or “deep discount”, or “ reduced prices!” or any of those words or phrases used to try to lure “innocent” shoppers into making purchases, and yet the sales of the TODAY ONLY items would go up.

Go figure.

I guess it all comes down to those words of wisdom spoken by Mike Brady to his offspring on The Brady Bunch, all those years ago: caveat emptor.

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