What Does Innuendo Mean?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

innuendo
"To detect innuendo," says Douglas Walton, "one has to 'read between the lines' of the written or spoken discourse" ( One-Sided Arguments, 1999). (Tyrell Cooper-Nelson/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Innuendo is a subtle or indirect observation about a person or thing, usually of a salacious, critical, or disparaging nature. Also called insinuation.

In "An Account of Innuendo," Bruce Fraser defines the term as "an implied message in the form of an allegation whose content constitutes some sort of unwanted ascription towards the target of the comment" (Perspectives on Semantics, Pragmatics, and Discourse, 2001).

As T. Edward Damer has noted, "The force of this fallacy lies in the impression created that some veiled claim is true, although no evidence is presented to support such a view" (Attacking Faulty Reasoning, 2009).

Pronunciation

 in-YOO-en-doe

Etymology

From the Latin, "by hinting"

Examples and Observations

  • "The informal fallacy of innuendo consists of implying a judgment, usually derogatory, by hinting. No argument is offered. Instead the audience is invited by suggestion, by a nod and a wink, to make the assumption. Someone asks, 'Where is Jones? Did he get fired or something?' Someone answers, 'Not yet.' By innuendo, the response numbers Jones's days. The political candidate who distributes a brochure promising to restore honesty and integrity to an office has suggested, without presenting any argument, that the incumbent is crooked."

    (Joel Rudinow and Vincent E. Barry, Invitation to Critical Thinking, 6th ed. Thomson Wadsworth, 2008)

  • "Sexual come-ons are a classic example [of innuendo]. 'Would you like to come up and see my etchings?' has been recognized as a double entendre for so long that by 1939, James Thurber could draw a cartoon of a hapless man in an apartment lobby saying to his date, 'You wait here, and I'll bring the etchings down.'​

    "The veiled threat also has a stereotype: the Mafia wiseguy offering protection with the soft sell, 'Nice store you got there. Would be a real shame if something happened to it.' Traffic cops sometimes face not-so-innocent questions like, 'Gee, Officer, is there some way I could pay the fine right here?'"

    (Steven Pinker, "Words Don't Mean What They Mean." Time, September 6, 2007)

    How to Detect Innuendo

    "To detect innuendo, one has to 'read between the lines' of the written or spoken discourse in a given case and draw out by implicature conclusions that are meant to be inferred by a reader or audience. This is done by reconstructing the argument as a contribution to a conversation, a conventionalized type of dialogue, in which the speaker and hearer (or reader) are supposedly engaged. In such a context, speaker and hearer may be presumed to share common knowledge and expectations and cooperatively to take part in the conversation at its different stages, by taking turns making kinds of moves called 'speech acts,' for example, questioning and replying, asking for clarification or justification of an assertion."

    (Douglas Walton, One-Sided Arguments: A Dialectical Analysis of Bias. State University of New York Press, 1999)

    Erving Goffman on the Language of Hint

    "Tact in regard to face-work often relies for its operation on a tacit agreement to do business through the language of hint--the language of innuendo, ambiguities, well-placed pauses, carefully worded jokes, and so on. The rule regarding this unofficial kind of communication is that the sender ought not to act as if he had officially conveyed the message he has hinted at, while the recipients have the right and the obligation to act as if they have not officially received the message contained in the hint.

    Hinted communication, then, is deniable communication; it need not be faced up to."

    (Erving Goffman, Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior. Aldine, 1967)

    Innuendo in Political Discourse

    - "Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before."

    (President George W. Bush, speech to the members of the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 15, 2008)

    - "Bush was speaking of appeasement against those who would negotiate with terrorists. The White House spokeswoman, with a straight face, claimed the reference was not to Sen. Barack Obama."

    (John Mashek, "Bush, Obama, and the Hitler Card." U.S. News, May 16, 2008)

    - "Our nation stands at a fork in the political road.

    In one direction, lies a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win. This is Nixonland. But I say to you that it is not America."

    (Adlai E. Stevenson II, written during his second presidential campaign in 1956)

    The Lighter Side of Sexual Innuendo

    Norman: (leers, grinning) Your wife interested in er . . . (waggles head, leans across) photographs, eh? Know what I mean? Photographs, "he asked him knowingly."

    Him: Photography?

    Norman: Yes. Nudge nudge. Snap snap. Grin grin, wink wink, say no more.

    Him: Holiday snaps?

    Norman: Could be, could be taken on holiday. Could be, yes--swimming costumes. Know what I mean? Candid photography. Know what I mean, nudge nudge.

    Him: No, no we don't have a camera.

    Norman: Oh. Still (slaps hands lightly twice) Woah! Eh? Wo-oah! Eh?

    Him: Look, are you insinuating something?

    Norman: Oh . . . no . . . no . . . Yes.

    Him: Well?

    Norman: Well. I mean. Er, I mean. You're a man of the world, aren't you . . . I mean, er, you've er . . . you've been there haven't you . . . I mean you've been around . . . eh?

    Him: What do you mean?

    Norman: Well, I mean, like you've er . . . you've done it . . . I mean like, you know . . . you've . . . er . . . you've slept . . . with a lady.

    Him: Yes.

    Norman: What's it like?

    (Eric Idle and Terry Jones, episode three of Monty Python's Flying Circus, 1969)