Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thanking "GOD"

Sometimes quotation marks are equal parts unnecessary and edifying, as in this example highlighted at the Huffington Post. From start to finish, the sign reads

... or, if we include the ribbons, which we can do with only a slight diminution in the quality of English usage the sign displays, it reads
The most eye-catching mistake is, of course, the scare-quotes around the word god, which challenge the reader to question the place of god in the graceless affirmation. Were the sign merely thanking god for all the troops, we might pass it off as just another instance in which someone has thrown good billboard money down a hole to grovel before imaginary entities, though the careful reader might still balk at "ALL THE TROOPS," a formulation that includes, among others, foreign troops, enemy troops, long-dead troops, hypothetical troops, fictional troops, future troops, non-participating troops, AWOL troops, treasonous troops, and so on. "ALL THE TROOPS" even includes gay troops, and something tells me the people who paid for this sign are actually not willing to thank god, "GOD," or anyone else for gay troops.

As it stands, though, the scare-quotes around god compound the confusions by broadening the possible readings. GOD is one thing; "GOD" conveys something like "so-called god," "the one that simpletons call god," (did Karen Armstrong conceive this sign?), "this god thing, whatever the hell that's supposed to mean," or perhaps "the one we have nick-named 'god' in jest," or what have you. Needless to say, imposing this confusion on the entity being thanked casts doubts on the sincerity of the gratitude -- it invites a sarcastic reading, as in, "thanks a lot, god, for these worthless fucking troops," which I charitably(?) assume to be roughly the opposite of the intended meaning.

I will decline to unpack "FROM THE AMERICAN FAMILY," except to say that it should have said "AN AMERICAN FAMILY," or better yet, it should have listed the names of the specific people responsible -- or maybe I should say the "competent English speakers" responsible for the billboard. As wildly overbroad reifications go, "THE AMERICAN FAMILY" is one I would prefer never to see in public, since I am credibly included in it, and thus accountable for its expressions. While I share in some possible readings of this mess of a billboard, I would prefer to speak for myself, "speak" for myself, and "speak for myself."

If you didn't already know, there already exists The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks that explores this verbal gaffe in all its variety and profusion.


Montag said...

That is truly a bizarre sign. I mean, if we were to read it aloud, ought we to make those quote motions with our fingers?

I mean, it does seem we use the name of God in jest, as if we should sort of roguishly wink after we do those finger-quote things.

It sort of reminds me of Monty Python: quote-quote, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

Dale said...

Montag, here, here. The overuse of scare-quotes is a strange one -- often unintentionally funny, but strange. And this one is really big: front and center on a huge billboard. They should proof-read their billboards better. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I don't know where this billboard is, but I suspect that it's in the southern U.S.

There, quotes are often used to show emphasis (consider the words quoted to be in bold type); as in "Live" Bait or Garage "Sale"