Taken at face value, the innuendo is a statement that seems innocuous, but it hints at an insult or a threat and is often used in polite society when direct opposition is out of the question. Insinuation is used more in some cultures that others. Sexual innuendo is a separate category of insinuation with its own characteristics. Innuendo is also a legal term that is used in libel and slander suits.
In polite society, insinuation can be an effective way to undermine someone’s character, insult or threaten. For those who are unwilling or unable to speak directly and tackle a situation head on, it is a favored way to get a point across. For instance, a manager at a company might say, “The company president has been successful at making a profit for the last three years, and her methods are very creative.” The implied translation would be, “The profits for this company over the last three years have been achieved through methods that are shady, if not illegal.”
Sociolinguistics involves studying the impact of culture and societal beliefs on language use. Insinuation and sarcasm are often more socially acceptable than direct confrontation, and various cultures have their own distinctive ways to deal with controversy and anger. For example, while many northerners in the US are known for being more direct and in-your-face, southerners are often renowned for being polite and for peppering their speech with innuendos. When a southerner says, “Bless her heart,” he or she is not actually expressing empathy for an individual. What he or she really means is, “That person is a complete mess.”
Sexual innuendo is also known by the term double entendre, a French phrase that roughly means "double understanding." While most innuendos have a distinctly negative overtone, the sexual suggestion is often just seen as a way to make a sexual connection or inject humor into a conversation. The sexual suggestion is often funny, although now always. A Florida high school psychology teacher was criticized when he used sexual suggestion in a quiz, outraging many parents.
The origin of the word innuendo is the Latin word innuere, which means "to nod toward." It is a legal term that has implications in defamation suits, in which negative commentary damaging to a person’s reputation is either spoken or printed. The legal meaning of innuendo is no different from the normally accepted definition. In law, it means "an oblique suggestion," and it can be used in a lawsuit to uphold a plaintiff’s claim.