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  • Writer's pictureMarcia Edwina Herman-Giddens

My Lesson about Scare Quotes

I had never heard of scare quotes, and neither had several other people, an English major and other writers, I queried after my instruction in this matter and my awakening to the meaning and nuances of scare quotes. I must thank the project editor assigned to go over the Unloose My Heart manuscript. Her instructing me about this was a good lesson. The numbers of errors she caught and queries she posted were astounding, but this was the one I learned the most from.

My mistakenly using this particular scare quote came about in the section of the book about my third great-uncle and his reputation, which included his possibly being one of the models for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a man known for great cruelty to his enslaved people. Evidence emerged in the process of my researching all this that he fathered at least two children by one of the two enslaved women he forced to stay in his house. In an early version I had written houseslave. Then, in the middle of working on the book, the Chicago Manual of Style and other guides changed their guidelines on referring to slaves and black people to not using the word slave, instead using terms like enslaved man or enslaved woman and capitalizing Black. The reasons, which I strongly agree with, are obvious. I went back through the manuscript, making the appropriate changes.

When I came to the part about the enslaved mother of the two children I wrote “houseslave,” putting it in quotes not realizing that made a scare quote (also known as shudder quotes or sneer quotes). I wanted readers to know that this enslaved woman was forced to be in the house in part for sexual service. In trying to avoid using the word slave without some recognition that it dehumanizes the person, I didn’t realize what I was really doing was making the phrase into something to question, something to doubt. As elegantly put by Megan Garber in The Atlantic Monthly, in her 2016 article about scare quotes, “They signal… epistemic uncertainty.” ( The term is fairly recent-- stemming from the mid-1950s.

In my discussion with project editor Ms. Finefrock, regarding my (ignorant) use of scare quotes, I explained that I put houseslave in quotes because I dislike euphemisms and feel that the word servant for an enslaved person is a euphemism and greatly distorts and covers up the reality of holding fellow human beings in bondage. I also wanted to signal that using slave for a person is no longer acceptable. So, now knowing about scare quotes, without further fuss I gave in to the term she suggested as acceptable- enslaved house servant. But, I still don’t like it.

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