What is a name for writing that communicates on two different levels?
December 30, 2017 3:49 PM   Subscribe

Is there a name for a type of writing that can be read one way, but is also indirectly meant to be read with a deeper meaning, for those who know what's going on?

I think on one hand, it's similar to intentionally coded language that only a recipient would understand (e.g., "please take good care of the plants" if the recipient knows there is money buried there, or "plants" is a referent to something else.) I'm thinking more along the lines of an entire story or discussion that has a plain reading, but is also designed to say something entirely different for those who are "in the know." Similar to a parable, I suppose, but I'm thinking not quite so metaphorical on the surface. So perhaps it doesn't inherently encourage a look for deeper meaning, but rather guards it somewhat. Also — along with a possible name — are there any good examples that you would be able to share with me?
posted by SpacemanStix to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Roman a clef?
posted by synecdoche at 3:56 PM on December 30, 2017

I mean, it sounds a lot like you're talking about allegory. The most famous example is Pilgrim's Progress. In the modern era I think The Chronicles of Narnia is the most familiar household reference, though.

There are numerous stories with allegorical elements, too many to mention. Most are much less blatant in nature than the original medieval-style allegories. Perhaps you are thinking of this more subtle style of allegory?
posted by desert outpost at 4:15 PM on December 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

That certainly crossed my mind, although there the reader knows about the nature of the writing. I guess I'm thinking about "coded language" that we see in some ancient greek documents that realized that they are writing on a sensitive topic, so they write in a way that respects this — allowing a surface reading that doesn't go too deep in case of possible incrimination, but is known by the reader. I realized that "dogwhistle" comes close in terms of a contemporary function, but I'm looking for something a bit more literary rather than political (and with less of a negative value-judgment built it).
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:27 PM on December 30, 2017

posted by amodelcitizen at 4:41 PM on December 30, 2017

posted by drunkonthemoon at 4:48 PM on December 30, 2017

posted by glasseyes at 4:49 PM on December 30, 2017 [8 favorites]

+1 for subtext
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:51 PM on December 30, 2017

This made me think of Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal which wiki says is satire that uses irony. About irony it also says:
Henry Watson Fowler, in The King's English, says, "any definition of irony—though hundreds might be given, and very few of them would be accepted—must include this, that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same."
posted by bleep at 4:54 PM on December 30, 2017

Indeed, with your added information I'm thinking it's subtext. For instance, there is a queer subtext in this passage from The Great Gatsby:

“ 'Come to lunch some day,' he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.



'Keep your hands off the lever,' snapped the elevator boy.

'I beg your pardon,' said Mr. McKee with dignity, 'I didn’t know I was touching it.'

'All right,' I agreed, 'I’ll be glad to.'

. . . I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands."

Does that sound something like what you're getting at? Subtext need not be sexual; this is just what jumped to my mind.
posted by desert outpost at 4:59 PM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Maybe "Aesopian"?

(Doesn't subtext refer to the deeper meaning itself, not the writing as a whole?)
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 5:06 PM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

That's correct - it refers to the implication of the text. So we say "The Picture of Dorian Gray is laden with subtextual meaning," or whatever. But as far as I can think right now, there is no simple referential adjective for a passage/piece containing subtext.
posted by desert outpost at 5:19 PM on December 30, 2017

posted by hawthorne at 5:34 PM on December 30, 2017

Again, I just heard someone discussing this the other day and I think it's a "P" word - maybe an "ology"?

It's a fairly obscure term, it specifically means what you are asking, OP. It's not anything mundane that you would have learned in elementary school or middle school english class. It's specific to ancient texts. This is going to drive me nuts until I have time to hunt up where I heard this!

I'll keep searching, this info is for the OP and anyone else who is good at searching up terms.
posted by jbenben at 6:11 PM on December 30, 2017

This is going in an opposite direction as the other answers, but how about steganography?
posted by batter_my_heart at 6:45 PM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

jbenben, is it periphrasis that you're thinking of? This question is nagging at me!
posted by desert outpost at 6:55 PM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

It sounds similar to a dogwhistle, though that's mostly political usage.
posted by jeather at 7:02 PM on December 30, 2017

Allegory and allusion, I think.

Allegory, meaning that the whole piece has a surface meaning and a secondary meaning. See Animal Farm.

Allusion, meaning the piece refers to something the intended audience already knows, and without knowledge of the reference, (unintended) audience members won’t “get it”.

Apocalyptic literature used to do this. You could refer to “Babylon”, and your recipients would know you were talking about Rome, but they had plausible deniability to the authorities.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:16 PM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

How about double entendre? The expression is most usually associated with hidden sexual meanings, but it can refer to anything awkward or too sensitive to be communicated openly.
posted by ipsative at 7:19 PM on December 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

There’s a term in Portuguese for this called fresta, where is meaning is found in between the lines, in the gaps.
posted by umbú at 7:36 PM on December 30, 2017

I think Aesopian could be mistaken in this context to mean just "kind of like Aesop" (fables, allegories, who knows), but it evidently has a more relevant history outlined in Censorship: A World Encyclopedia.
posted by Wobbuffet at 7:38 PM on December 30, 2017

I suspect that jbenben's P word may be parable.
posted by Bruce H. at 7:47 PM on December 30, 2017

Wondering if this article is an example of what you mean. A Classics professor claims that messages in Plato’s work shows him to be a secret follower of Pythagoras and that this would have been obvious to other followers of Pythagoras.
posted by FencingGal at 7:58 PM on December 30, 2017

Yeah oops, I should have quoted this definition of Aesopian (as in "Aesopian language") (admittedly a word I also didn't know before today): "conveying an innocent meaning to an outsider but a hidden meaning to a member of a conspiracy or underground movement." (source)

Not really what you're looking for, but the question also calls to mind Parental Bonus (shallow aimed at kid audience, deeper at adults in the know) and Getting Crap Past The Radar at TV Tropes.
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 8:02 PM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is often called esoteric writing.
posted by praemunire at 9:31 PM on December 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have to work through some of these ideas, but there are suggestions here that come close enough to fitting the bill that I can work with it. Thanks!
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:36 PM on December 30, 2017

I thought "perphrasis" sounded most like the word I heard. But that doesn't seem to be it.

Someone was explaining something historical, and as an aside they mention something like, "In fact most ancient(religious?) texts do this, they have a mundane interpretation, and for those that have eyes there are deeper meaning, it's called BLANK."

I'll continue checking my browser history. I feel certain I googled the word, must have been 2 weeks ago. I went back a week ago in my history and couldn't find it. Periphrasis sounds correct, but the definition doesn't match.
posted by jbenben at 10:44 PM on December 30, 2017

Hm...that's sounding like the difference between exoteric and esoteric interpretation. But of course, those words do not start with "p." jbenben, if/when you figure it out, do update us!
posted by desert outpost at 11:04 PM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


The discussion mentioned Plato, the academic term was Paronomasia.

Current definitions explain "Paronomasia" as punning or word play, but if you dig you can find uses to describe multiple meanings within texts. Another word POLYSEMY can also be used when talking about ancient texts.

Here's a google book excerpt discussing both words in terms of ancient Jewish texts.
posted by jbenben at 11:16 PM on December 30, 2017 [7 favorites]

Now that is an excellent word.
posted by fullerine at 11:31 PM on December 30, 2017

posted by Too-Ticky at 1:33 AM on December 31, 2017

Let me add to the vocabulary: imagery. In general, it's the use of one thing to represent another.

Very big in Shakespeare. A very common example is use of a garden to describe England. I was never very clear on the boundaries between imagery, metaphor, simile, etc, but the discussion at the link suggests that imagery is a broad category that includes the others.

I remember about imagery because I wrote one of the worst English papers ever at my Alma Mater's long history on this very topic.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:26 AM on December 31, 2017

AH! Thank you for updating, jbenben. That's very interesting.
posted by desert outpost at 12:35 PM on December 31, 2017

Like praemunire, I think esoteric writing is exactly what you're looking for. The "On reading" section of Leo Strauss's wikipedia page explains this usage in greater depth and should point to further resources.
posted by superior_donut at 10:45 AM on January 2, 2018

James Scott talks about the need for this in pre-democratic societies where you need/want to convey dissent to your confederates/peers but have plausible deniability if the thought police comes knocking at your door. It is an “art of resistance.” You can say, “I guess my futuristic space tale does resemble our society now that you mention it officer/boss/landlord but I surely didn’t mean it that way.”
Subversive, ironic, cheeky, trickster, rope-a-dope, sly, winking are other adjectives that come to mind jn this context.
posted by Buddy_Boy at 10:00 PM on January 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

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