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I saw a picture on Facebook of a couple of people that were dressed in special suits. One person was dressed in normal clothes. A non-native speaker of Russian commented: [Наташа], ты не в теме! He obviously meant to say something like "Why aren't you dressed as those other people?/You are not dressed the same!/You are not dressed to the occasion!"

I wondered if that is a correct translation. I thought that быть в теме == быть в курсе (событий), that is, "in the know". If that is so, his comment would obviously not be very fitting in that situation.

Am I correct in my translation of быть в теме? If so, what would be a correct way of expressing what that person wanted to say?

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  • "A non-native speaker of Russian commented: [Наташа], ты не в теме! " Was the non-native speaker one of the characters on the picture, or a real person looking at the picture and commenting?
    – user31264
    Jan 24 '15 at 13:47
  • @user31264 A person looking at the picture. Jan 24 '15 at 13:51
  • Who is Наташа? A character on the picture?
    – user31264
    Jan 24 '15 at 17:08
  • @user31264 Yeah, just a random name for the person he was pointing to. Jan 24 '15 at 18:14
  • what clothes they weared? wasn't it by chance bdsm clothes?
    – user31264
    Jan 25 '15 at 16:06
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"[не] в теме" means "быть в курсе событий", "have understanding". It is being said about a person. "[не] в тему" means "подходить к обстоятельствам", match the occasion. It is being said about person's possessions or behavior.

Yes this is a bit fuzzy, as informal slang often is.

"- А разве Краснодар не рядом с Иркутском? - Ты вообще не в теме!"

"- Зачем ты подарил Васе стаканы? Он не пьёт, ему совсем не в тему."

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  • So, could our commenter have said: "Наташа, ты не одета в тему"? Jan 23 '15 at 15:29
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    @Neftas Скорее, "ты оделась не в тему".
    – alamar
    Jan 23 '15 at 15:40
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    Actually, I encountered it quite a few times when '(не) в теме' was used exactly for belonging. This usage tends to be associated with some relatively narrow subcultures, such as fans of particular little-known rock bands or cosplayers or something like that. Probably, with such groups, 'to be in it' and 'to be in the know' is pretty much the same thing.
    – ach
    Jan 23 '15 at 16:01
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    @Neftas Yeah, if a speaker is non-native, that would explain it. In my usage it is "сделать что-нибудь не в тему" that means to do something "stupid" that obviously shows your lack of understanding (especially "to say"). However, "не в теме" sounds ambiguous to me. Also, even the use of "не в тему" would sound weird, as if you suggest that the person themselves are inappropriate (i.e. it would be better if they weren't there at all).
    – Shady_arc
    Jan 24 '15 at 0:09
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    slightly more formal way of saying it would be «оделась не по теме», which is a mixture of the literary usage of «не по теме» ("off topic") and colloquial «не в тему» ("unsuitable")
    – J-mster
    Jan 24 '15 at 10:08
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You're right that the most widespread usage of «быть в теме» is to mean “to be up on”. But words tend to stretch meanings through time, they tend to drift away further and further to tangential meanings. So people started to use «быть в теме» at some point as a euphemism or slang for “to belong to group X” or “to a have an interest in X”, especially in subcultures.

To me it makes sense, because to be up on something quite often means to know something exclusive that other people don't know, which in turns quite often entails to be part of some exclusive group, or at least be related to that group somehow. That would explain how gradually the meaning generalized to mean from knowing latest news to belonging to a group in general.

In LGBT slang «быть в теме» is widely used to mean “to be a lesbian”, “to be part of lesbian subculture”. As people tend to flex words grammatically for slang purposes, the noun «тема» at some point started to mean the lesbian subculture itself. On Russian social network VKontakte there are plenty of groups and pages catered for lesbians with various variations of the word «тема», sometimes capitalized. Quick googling shows that people use the phrase «быть в теме» to denote members of BDSM, tickling, and even hipster community. I'd say it would be used even wider by various subcultures, if it weren't associated with lesbians so much. (It seems intuitively correct that in a society with heavily entrenched homophobia people would tend to not use slang or even behavior that is associated with LGBT, for some psychological reasons I don't really understand, but I never read such studies).

I would be grateful to any linguist that can explain and elaborate this phenomenon of drifting and widening of meanings of words, which produces slang and euphemisms, so that this answer could be improved.

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