Benjamin Esham

Subtweeting without tweeting

Earlier this month, Nate Silver tweeted something that made me do a double take. He described a piece by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman as being “basically a subtweet of NYT’s campaign coverage.” The column, of course, wasn’t a tweet at all, but here was a perfectly erudite person calling it a subtweet.

“Subtweet,” a portmanteau of “subtext” and “tweet,” refers to a negative tweet about some subject that cattily avoids actually mentioning that subject.1 Mulling over Silver’s statement, I realized that I couldn’t think of another word to describe this stylistic device. “Subtext” itself refers to the hidden meaning, not the work that carries the hidden meaning. “Innuendo” refers to the latter, but is most often used for sex-related insinuations. (It’s also harder to work into a sentence: compare “a subtweet of their campaign coverage” to “an innuendo referring to their campaign coverage.”)

I eventually came to the same conclusion as Silver: although “subtweet” explicitly invokes Twitter, there’s simply no better word for the concept. The existing vocabulary was so lacking that the word has escaped its roots and become generally applicable.

(I was reminded of this subject again today when I read this review by Michiko Kakutani of a new Hitler biography. It’s a pretty masterful piece of, well, subtweeting.)

  1. Sorry for mansplaining the word “subtext” to you. ↩︎