Last week at the Grammy Awards, Taylor Swift gave an Album of the Year acceptance speech that not-so-subtly called out Kanye West for lyrics in his latest album. For the record, his lyrics are: "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous." Actually, she didn't call him out for the suggestion that they might "still have sex," but rather for the idea that he made her famous. To her, that was the true offense. There are discussions to be had about how this sort of beef in the music industry is actually good for both of their careers, but this is a blog about words, and not about PR. What I found interesting about this whole exchange was the way in which the press, or Slate in particular, described Taylor Swift's speech: "Watch Taylor Swift subtweet Kanye West while accepting her Album of the Year Grammy."
Slate's tweet, which is also the title of the article that appears on Slate, uses the word subtweet to refer to an utterance from the real world that comes from an actual human mouth, and not from fingers typing into an app. I had never encountered this before so I decided to investigate. First things first.
What's a subtweet?
The term subtweet emerged in 2009 (according to Know Your Meme) and is a shortening of "subliminal tweet." I was actually surprised to learn this because I had assumed it was a blend of "subtle" and "tweet" before I started reading more about it. Here's the Google Trends data in case you're more of a visual person. The exact nature of a subtweet is up for debate, but generally, it's a passive aggressive post on Twitter directed at a person or entity. Generally the subtweeter does not explicitly mention the other user's handle (by typing @ followed by a user name). However, the goal is for the subtweetee to see the subtweet and then feel feelings.
You probably shouldn't subtweet. It's very easy to do it wrong. Like, if you're Hillary Duff's ex, you might post a photo of her on Twitter and then write a subtweet directed at yourself about how you've lost the love of your life. That's wrong, according to MTV. Don't do that. There are also articles on how to subtweet well, like this one in the Guardian.
As implied above, you can most definitely subtweet yourself, or in this case, subtweet about people who subtweet themselves:
Non-human entities that almost certainly don't have a Twitter account can also be the subject of subtweets:
Can you Subtweet IRL?
Back to Taylor Swift. Many of Slate's Twitter followers took umbrage at the media outlet's liberal use of subtweet. Here are a couple of people pointing out that Slate is bad at language:
But it seems that since the introduction of the word subtweet, people have been using it in creative ways, and I viewed Slate's use as innovative rather than incorrect. Here we have another person using subtweet metaphorically, calling most song lyrics a "subtweet with a melody."
In this light, most of Taylor Swift's (or Kanye West's) songs could easily be classified as subtweets, especially "Bad Blood," which is apparently about Katy Perry poaching some of Swift's back-up dancers. Taylor Swift has been involved in many a subtweet story in the traditional sense (where tradition was established in 2009). Often her buzzed-about feuds take place on Twitter. You could argue that Twitter is Taylor Swift's (and her peers') passive-aggression venue of choice. It's not a far-fetched metaphorical extension, then, to apply the language of Twitter to speeches that closely resemble these tiffs in a real-world setting.
TLDR: You don't need to be on Twitter to subtweet
Long after Twitter dissolves into the internet graveyard with LiveJournal and MySpace (which I guess still exist for some extremely dedicated users), the language of Twitter could still be alive and well in our vocabularies. Our grandchildren might subtweet each other, and we'll be the wise old ones who tell them about this thing called Twitter that we used to care about back in the day. We'll show them the video for "Bad Blood" and they'll love us forever for contributing to their retro aesthetic.
I hadn't thought of looking up "verbal subtweet," but apparently that goes back to 2010, only a year after the term subtweet was introduced.