When did speakers first draw in the air with their fingers to indicate that a word or phrase should be heard as if between quotation marks?

  • 3
    What connection does this have to mythology or folklore? Do air quotes feature prominently in some culture's mythology? Apr 17, 2018 at 21:30
  • 3
    Folklore includes customs transmitted person-to-person, and the folklore tag is for "questions on the traditional beliefs, customs and stories of a community or culture".
    – user1618
    Apr 17, 2018 at 23:19
  • 2
    Are you asking when they were first used, or when they were "first" "used"?
    – Nat
    Apr 17, 2018 at 23:27
  • 1
    I've put scare quotes around my "air quotes", but then there's the much-famed role of the reader :-)
    – user1618
    Apr 17, 2018 at 23:28
  • The better question might be "when were quotes first used in text." (Certainly not in the ancient canons. Seems to be ~1500's AD.) Air quotes are almost certainly contemporary and only a recent custom.
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 23, 2018 at 19:26

1 Answer 1


I found two memorates from the 1960s describing the gesturing with fingers from each hand to draw quotation marks around a spoken word or phrase. These are recorded as witnessed in 1964-68 and 1968-69, by a then undergraduate and school student respectively. I myself recall the gesture from 1980-81.

The practice became widespread at the end of the 1980s, at least partly because of the gesture's frequent use by Steve Martin on the United States TV show Saturday Night Live.

The earliest reference I could find to the term "air quotes" was in March 1989 by Kurt Andersen and Paul Rudnick in their article "The Irony Epidemic" in Spy magazine. (Some online sources cite a 1987 source for a use by Frazier Moore, but this does not stand up.)

There is a much earlier reference to a similar but not identical gesture in the July 1927 edition of Science, which describes a woman who raised her hands above her head with the first and second fingers pointing upwards, representing quotation marks, when she wished to convey that her sayings were not original.

  • 1
    I wonder when Victor Borge's Phonetic Punctuation skit was first performed. Apr 17, 2018 at 14:47
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    @David according to the Discography entries here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Borge a record came out in 1945 called Phonetic Punctuation part 1 and 2.
    – Bent
    Apr 17, 2018 at 20:20
  • 1
    @Bent Well spotted. Those aren't modern air-quotes (the skit involves him reading a passage from a book while drawing all the punctuation marks individually in the air and making silly noises) but it seems relevant. He'd draw an open quote, read the quoted text, then draw the close quote, rather than simultaneously making both quote marks throughout the quote. Apr 18, 2018 at 12:41

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