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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

subtext

(1980’s | academese? literese? | “underlying idea,” “hidden meaning,” “substratum”)

Ah, the drama. Dramatists have given us hundreds of new expressions — Shakespeare alone is responsible for dozens — but this expression is different in that we owe it to a theorist of drama rather than a creator of it. At any rate, several sources point to Stanislavsky as the source of this expression. It might be defined in different ways. Story behind the story, undercurrents among the characters, unexplained background, unexpressed motivations. Most simply, it’s the unstated yet significant part(s) of the plot, and it may be made obvious to the audience or not. It is the result of what we used to call “reading between the lines,” even though it places itself under rather than within.

The OED’s examples go back to the late nineteenth century, so Stanislavsky didn’t invent it, but he doubtless gave it a powerful push. That great literary critic Freud’s “unconscious” (das Unbewusste) was carelessly rendered as “sub-conscious” for many years, which probably helped “subtext” gain a toehold in everyday language. Another precursor was “subliminal,” as in message, which spiraled into the language in the late fifties thanks to the underappreciated Vance Packard, who published an exposĂ© of dubious Madison Avenue practices called “The Hidden Persuaders.” Subliminal advertising was intended to bypass conscious understanding or thought and appeal to a part of the mind over which we have limited control (there’s your subconscious), a bit like hypnosis. So you want to buy the product without knowing why. (“Liminal” means “of or pertaining to thresholds”; the messages were intended to stay below the threshold of conscious thought.) It’s not clear how effective subliminal advertising was, but pretty much everyone except the advertisers agreed that it was unethical.

Probably in the late seventies, “subtext” ventured forth from its theatrical cocoon and took wing. LexisNexis would have you believe it entered political contexts first, but that may be due to its indexing bias. Political scientist Larry Sabato recently defined it as “the between-the-lines character sketch that guides and sets the tone for press coverage.” In this definition it has a personal focus; the subtext gives us a frame for understanding coverage of political figures more than issues or developments. While it may come out of a pattern of undisputed facts adduced in previous reporting, it is always more or less subject to bias. That’s part of the reason Trump’s defenders and critics see him in such starkly different terms; they are starting from entirely different premises. Every word and act is measured against antipodal subtexts, both maintained with considerable rancor, each producing a radically different basis of interpretation.

Sabato’s definition is unusually precise. “Subtext” has come to refer generally to any underlying message or idea that must be divined, or ferreted out. Those who grasp it will understand the situation better and respond more effectively. As in politics and fiction, there is room for idiosyncratic judgments, so different observers may see different things underlying a situation, or assign greater or lesser significance to the same underlying element. Applying principles of drama criticism to real life is a touchy business, but it’s inevitable. If you really want to understand what’s going on, you need to look below the surface, in life as in literature.

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