I always wondered why people go up and down twice when there is just one quote mark.
Air quotes are the visual equivalent of scare quotes, used to show doubt, question the validity of, or demonstrate irony in a written text. This 1989 Spy magazine article, “The Ironic Epidemic,” discusses the history of air quotes and their significance as a reflection of jaded, contemporary culture.
Beyond pop culture and casual conversation, air quotes are not beneath politicians, elected officials, or repulsive human beings who managed to become elected officials. The current White House press secretary-weasel utilized the double motion air quotes as a way to somehow justify the abhorrent use of scare quotes by a certain fearless leader.
A bevy of internet gifs guarantees that air quotes will weather the future of post-language communication, but this one is quite possibly my favorite:
I will answer your question by suggesting that although right and left quotations are singular characters, the gestural convention for moving one’s fingers up and down multiple times occurs because verbal language, unlike a written text (at least for the previous couple thousand years or so), exists in time. If a gesture, like air quotes, does not coincide with the duration of the word or phrase found within said air quotes, it does not conform as easily to speech patterns. So, here’s my guess, as originally hypothesized on Twitter: maybe the double motion visually signifies more than one word or a multisyllabic word within the quotation?
Let’s take the Saturday Night Live character, Bennett Brauer played by Chris Farley, as an example.
In this skit, Bennet Brauer uses the double “up + down” method of air quotes you refer to in your question. It’s hilarious because he’s aligned the movement of his air quotes with his over-emphasized speech pattern. The air quotes make his tragically desperate intonation sound even more tragically desperate.
Then there’s Dr. Evil’s generous use of air quotes.
At first, Dr. Evil employs single gesture air quotes for the word “laser.” But as the plan gets more absurd, he uses the double motion air quotes for “ozone layer.” It’s the slow lead up that makes the joke stick.
As you can see, Indra, the multi-gesture air quotes may have more to do with the need for hand gestures to synchronize with speech, rather than the actual typographic mark. Still, it’s so fun when written and spoken language meet like this. How might the air quote gesture change with local quotation mark conventions? And what about the victory/air quote emoji (✌️), which effectively turns a gesture back into a typographic symbol? Those are questions for another day.
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Repeating a gesture twice often signifies a noun in American Sign Language, e.g. if you double-tap the sign for “sit”, it means “chair”.
I think that feature of ASL is based on our natural communication tendencies. I asked someone who doesn’t know ASL to air-quote some single-syllable words as they read some sentences, and they tended to double-air-quote the nouns more than the verbs. Sometimes, when only the verb was quoted on paper, they added air quotes for the noun that followed the verb, with one air quote on each word. Also, words at the end of a sentence, noun or verb, got more air quotes.
Great point, thanks for commenting!