Venturing into the land of social media acronyms

“Tl;dr” is the only internet abbreviation I know of that boasts a perfectly used semicolon. Where did the acronym originate?


A few weeks ago, I discovered that there are clues to each day’s New York Times crossword puzzle in the newspaper’s Wordplay column. Reading this column has not only helped me solve lots more puzzles, but also introduced me to some unfamiliar social media acronyms and slang.

In her April 5, 2020, Wordplay column, Deb Amlen hides the puzzle’s theme behind a link: “Tl;dr (Spoiler!).” I had to find out more about this one. It is the only internet abbreviation I know of that boasts a perfectly used semicolon, although it seems that few people use the semicolon any longer. Tl;dr stands for “too long; didn’t read” and it seems to have begun in the early 2000s. It is hard to read large chunks of text online, so someone who posts, say, a 10-paragraph essay on her theories about “Star Trek” might receive a disgruntled tl;dr (or tldr) in response. Or she might realize she had gone on too long and acknowledge the fact by typing tldr at the end.  

Tldr can also be understood as the main point of a long piece – what you might call a summary. The acronym flags the takeaway, so that someone pressed for time can easily decide if the whole thing seems worth reading. This abbreviation is common enough to be defined in Merriam-Webster, but is still probably not appropriate for all contexts. Tech writer Andrew Heinzman gives a helpful rule: “Don’t throw around tldr anywhere you wouldn’t say lol.” 

Working on a puzzle from the archives (Dec. 8, 2017), I came across this clue: “Social media post that refers to another user without directly mentioning that person.” The answer turned out to be “subtweet.” To understand this one, I had to get more familiar with Twitter, which I usually avoid because my preferred speed of non-face-to-face communication is still U.S. mail.

Bear with me if you already know all this. If you tweet and include a person’s handle (@username), he or she will be notified of your post. If you don’t, the person won’t get a notification, although he or she might still run across the tweet. 

Subtweets are the social media version of talking behind someone’s back. The word has now found currency outside the digital realm, though, and can be applied to any piece of oblique criticism. A recent example: A classmate of my daughter’s, let’s call her Jane, wore her pajamas during their online physics class. The next day, the dean called a Zoom meeting and declared that it was unacceptable to wear pajamas during school, even while quarantined. The dean’s message was a subtweet, according to my daughter, because it publicly rebuked Jane without actually mentioning her by name. 

More TILs (today I learned) to come in the next column.

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