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noun [countable]

a tweet (= a short message sent using the Twitter social networking service) about someone, often a negative one, that doesn't mention that person's username or real name because the sender doesn't want them to see it


verb [intransitive/transitive]


noun [countable]

'Rob Kardashian attacks ex in subtweet … Rob Kardashian appeared to subtly hit out at ex-girlfriend Adrienne Bailon – who claims dating him hurt her career …'

Zalebs 31st July 2014

'Recently I was sub-tweeted – someone tweeted something negative about me on Twitter, but did not tweet at me directly – by several of my acquaintances.'

Olean Times Herald 30th July 2014

'America's Most Wanted Subtweeters … You'd think that celebrities, with all of their good looks and hefty bank accounts, would be above the subtweeting drama regular people deal with every day …'

The Mash 7th March 2013

If you're as old as I am (and so can still recall the days when people routinely wrote things by hand), then if you cast your mind back to schooldays, you might have uncomfortable memories of scrappy little notes being passed around the class which surreptitiously circulated derisive comments about someone in the room. By contrast, today's sophisticated world of social networking often makes it much more difficult to be complicit in 'dishing the dirt' on someone in this sneaky way. In the Twitterverse, however, it seems that users have found a way around this problem by the invention of what's known as a subtweet.

subtweets are … essentially just a 21st century twist on the good old-fashioned pastime of gossiping about people

If you're a regular Twitter user, the chances are you'll have seen a subtweet without even realizing it. A subtweet is a tweet (short message), which mentions a person without using the @ sign, and thereby their correct Twitter ID (whether or not this is based on their own name). Because of the way Twitter works, this is tantamount to being able to write something about a person without them immediately knowing that you tweeted about them. A subtweet can also be a comment that doesn't mention the person's name in any way at all, though other cues usually mean that readers know who's being referred to and so are in on the secret. Though it's possible that a subtweet might be used for innocent reasons (as a way of admiring someone without them knowing, for example), nine times out of ten, subtweets are used just like that scrappy little note in the classroom – they're a way of saying something negative about a person without them cottoning on too quickly, if at all.

Subtweets are therefore essentially just a 21st century twist on the good old-fashioned pastime of gossiping about people. People who engage in the practice have been dubbed subtweeters, and if you've been a victim, then someone is said to have subtweeted you, or you could even be described as a subtweetee.

The public nature of Twitter means, however, that the subtweet is not an entirely foolproof way of talking about someone behind their back. Just because dropping a person's Twitter ID stops them receiving any direct notification that they've been mentioned, doesn't mean to say that they won't stumble across the offending tweet when taking a general look at the comments of those they follow.

Background – subtweet

Though at first glance the word subtweet looks like a case of simple affixation with the prefix sub-, it's in fact a shortened form of subliminal tweet (if something is subliminal, it may affect you even though you don't notice it – hence subliminal tweet).

Subtweet is a more recent addition to the deluge of Twitter-inspired words that have pervaded popular language, some more successfully than others, since Twitter was launched in 2006. There was a period when we couldn't seem to get enough of tw- wordplay, with bizarre new coinages (e.g. tweath, twelete, tweetheart and many, many more) appearing on what seemed like a weekly basis. Now that Twitter is no longer a novelty however, the flow seems to have died down a little and, whilst some creations have been more enduring (twitpic, tweeps, Twitterverse, tweetup), others have quickly disappeared.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

For teachers

Would you like to use this BuzzWord article in class? Visit onestopenglish.com for tips and suggestions on how to do just that! The downloadable pdf contains a student worksheet which includes reading activities, vocabulary-building exercises, and a focus on phrasal verbs and verb and noun collocations.

Last week …

Read last week's BuzzWord: Tripping the lexical fantastic – new words in 2014.

This article was first published on 7th January 2015.

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