White House press secretary Sean Spicer, asked about proof of President Trump's claim that he was wiretapped during the election, replied that multiple media reports say the Trump campaign was the subject of electronic surveillance in some way, on March 13 at the White House. (Reuters)

Everyone knows air quotes when they see them: the middle and forefingers of each hand wiggling to resemble quotation marks. Often accompanied by a spoken “quote-unquote,” they’re typically used to mock or disown the phrase they surround.

They mean something “is ‘so-called,'” rather than real, the late William Safire, the great scholar of political language, once wrote. They cast “aspersion on the word or phrase that follows,” he said. “A sneer is built in.”

Air quotes have been around for decades, first appearing in news media in the 1920s and becoming a staple of late night comedy by the 1980s.

They were a familiar rhetorical device during the 2016 election. As a candidate, Donald Trump used air quotes when he criticized “quote-President” Obama’s refugee policies. Michelle Obama air quoted Trump in a jab about his promise to keep the country “in suspense” over whether he’d accept the election results. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) used them to dismiss critics who said he was running a “fringe campaign.”

Indeed, air quotes are a snide, easy way to discredit or distance oneself from the other side’s words.

Using them to distance yourself from your own side’s words, on the other hand, or your own words — that’s a new one.

But that’s essentially what White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared to be doing on Monday when he tried to retreat from President Trump’s baseless claims that the Obama administration had wiretapped him.

Trump tweeted the accusation earlier this month, writing that Obama had the “wires tapped” at Trump Tower and questioning whether it was legal for a president to be “wire tapping” a presidential candidate. He used quotes around both phrases.

In a news briefing Monday, Spicer contended that Trump was really referring to a range of possible surveillance efforts, as The Washington Post reported.

The quotes proved it, he said.

“He said very clearly, quote, ‘wire tapping’ — in quotes,” Spicer told reporters, making air quotes with his fingers. “That spans a whole host of surveillance types.”

In other words, the quotes should have made it obvious that Trump didn’t necessarily mean wiretapping — that is, third-party monitoring of phone or Internet conversations — but a plethora of tools available to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Was this a variation of the “mistakes were made” defense, one which does not require actually saying “mistakes were made?” That remains uncertain but possible.

Judge for yourself.

Safire, the former New York Times columnist, aide to President Richard Nixon and author of “Safire’s Political Dictionary,” called the phrase “mistakes were made” a “passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.”

Now a political cliche, the phrase is typically attributed to President Ronald Reagan, who used it in his 1987 State of the Union address to take general responsibility for the Iran-contra scandal. In the time since, countless politicians have invoked it to deflect blame.

If that comparison seems off-base, is it perhaps more accurate to say Spicer was trying to declare the phrase “wire tapping,” as used by Trump, “inoperative?”

Safire defines “inoperative” as making “a correction without an apology, leaving the corrector in a deep hole.” The term originated in 1973, after Nixon’s press secretary, Ronald Ziegler, had dismissed the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters as a “third-rate burglary.”

When “new developments” emerged in the investigation, Ziegler backpedaled, telling reporters that some of his early defenses had become “inoperative.”

”Many commentators assumed Ziegler was groping for a euphemistic way of saying that he had lied,” historian Christopher Lasch would later write of the remark. “What he meant, however, was that his earlier statements were no longer believable. Not their falsity but their inability to command assent rendered them ‘inoperative.’ The question of whether they were true or not was beside the point.”

Maybe there was nothing “inoperative” about Spicer’s “wire tapping” defense at all. Perhaps Spicer was using air quotes in their traditional sense, to suggest that someone else, not his boss, had said “wire tapping” and had really meant it.

If that’s the case, he might consider the history of air quotes and their usage.

A 1927 edition of the journal Science is often cited as containing the first reference to the gesture in an American publication. The journal describes 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 here ‘quotation marks’ and were very easily understood,” the article reads.

Over time, air quotes came to signify something more sarcastic, but the thrust remained the same: Someone else said the words.

Comedian Steve Martin has been credited with bringing them to pop culture through his appearances on “Saturday Night Live.” As author and conservative political commentator David Frum wrote in his book on the cultural impact of the 1970s: “Martin taught a whole generation of young people the distant, cool, ironic sensibility summed up by the gesture he popularized — the four-fingered drawing of double-quote marks in the air.”

It’s not clear when the gesture actually got the delightful name “air quotes,” or who bestowed that name upon it. But a 1989 essay in the now defunct satirical magazine Spy is often cited as a potential origin.

At the time, the authors wrote, air quotes were part of an “irony epidemic.” They had become “the quintessential contemporary gesture that says, We’re not serious,” the article read.

The authors also remarked on the utility of the gesture.

“Air quotes,” they wrote, “eliminate responsibility for one’s own actions, one’s own choices.”

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