Tweeted air-quotes, and our linguistic debt to Donald Trump

Donald Trump says he invented the phrase pump-priming. Maybe he didn’t, but that pales into insignificance when compared with his magnificent contribution to our understanding of the “tweeted air-quote “

This week, in an interview with the Economist, President Trump said he recently came up with the term priming the pump as an economic concept. The interviewer politely suggested it had been in use before (by Maynard Keynes). No matter, when we reflect on the brilliant use of air quotes when tweeting.


You may remember air-quotes from an earlier era.  Younger subscribers may not be aware, but air-quotes are gestures accompanying a linguistic utterance which are intended to add significance but often carries self-parody. Masters of the air-quote include Steve Martin and Michael Myers. Air quotes of Myers as Dr Evil have become memes.

The humour is often because of the banality of the words offered as meaningful.

The origins of air-quotes

One authority suggested :

In 1989, Spy Magazine included this:

“When Bob and Betty describe themselves in these ways, they raise the middle and forefingers of both hands, momentarily forming twitching bunny ears – air quotes, the quintessential contemporary gesture that says We’re not serious.”

Air quotes have become a derided cliché.

The practice may not have been given a name until the 1980s, but there is a record of its being in use much earlier, in the July 1927 edition of Science:

“Some years ago I knew a very intelligent young woman who used to inform us that her ‘bright sayings’ were not original, by raising both hands above her head with the first and second fingers pointing upward. Her fingers were her ‘quotation marks’ and were very easily understood.”

The tweeted air-quote

When Donald Trump tweets, I can imagine him speaking, and using his elegant little pinkies to produce air-quotes for emphasis.

For example:

I never “mocked” a disabled reporter … simply showed him “grovelling”. We now understand, to borrow another modern trope “mocked” means “mocked”, that is it means what I meant it to mean, not what other pervayers of sleasy accusations against me meant it to mean.

Then there is his recent use of the symbolically-rich word “tapes” [see above] in homage to President Nixon’s contributions to the history of White House surveillance technology.

The “brilliance” of the tweeted air-quote

The “brilliance” of the tweeted air-quote lies in its economy of expression. The reader is able to understand what otherwise would take far more than a hundred and forty characters to express.

Another genius aspect of the innovation is the point made by Trump surrogates (or do I mean “surrogates”) that the words need not be taken as old-fashioned statements of facts or truth, but rather as Alt-facts, or maybe “alternative truth” statements.


Enough for the moment. I hope I have helped place President Trump where he deserves to be, for his continued contributions to linguistics and to the ever-changing beauty of the English language.

Comments with or without air-quotes welcomed.

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