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What Is an Innuendo?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments

By donasmrs — On Jul 27, 2012

@fify-- I know what you mean!

It happened to one of my close friends while we were in class. She was answering a question and talking about a news article she had read. She ended up saying something that could be taken as a sexual innuendo but that's not what she meant at all! The entire class started giggling and my friend was so embarrassed. Thankfully, the teacher knew she hadn't meant that and got the class to quiet down. But people kept making fun of her for the rest of the day. It was a really bad situation to be in!

By fify — On Jul 26, 2012

@cloudel-- But it is proven in legal terms all the time isn't it? People take each other to court for slander and most of the time it's subtle innuendos.

In terms of the person using the innuendo, I guess it could go either way. You could be called on for it like it happened with @DylanB's coworker. Or the person can remain in the right regardless of what the others do to prove it.

Let's not forget that not all innuendos are intentional either. There are accidental innuendos too. For example, someone might say something that is not meant to have a double meaning at all and the individual doesn't mean anything bad by it. But for one reason or another, it comes off as an innuendo and people misunderstand what the individual really meant.

By literally45 — On Jul 26, 2012

I rarely, if at all, use innuendos. I'm not very good at hinting things or insulting someone in an indirect way. I can't even insult people directly but will speak my mind when I have to. Sometimes, speaking with innuendos seems sinister to me and sometimes it seems very witty. I think being able to come up with an innuendo on the spot is a hard thing and not everyone can do that successfully.

Most of the innuendos I hear are usually on TV shows. Particularly TV serial writers appear to be very fond of this kind of communication. I do admit that funny or dramatic innuendos at the right time make the character in the show appear very intelligent and self-confident.

Sometimes, I wish I had the wit and quickness to come up with an innuendo on the spot when someone upsets me.

By OeKc05 — On Jul 25, 2012

It's really creepy when old men use sexual innuendo on young women, especially if you are the young woman. I had a boss who always said things that could be taken offensively but were not bold and clear, but I always knew what he meant.

It was so gross that I avoided him at every opportunity. At one point, I learned that I would have to go on a business trip alone with him, and I couldn't handle that. I actually quit my job because of his innuendo.

I really did fear that he would try something once we were alone. All that innuendo probably hadn't been for nothing, and I didn't want to find out if my fears were warranted.

By cloudel — On Jul 25, 2012

@giddion – That's the bad thing about innuendo. It can be hard to prove.

I had a friend who engaged in an innuendo war with her cousin. They were constantly cutting each other down in a disguised manner, but everyone in the family knew that they hated each other.

However, unless an outsider was just extremely good at picking up on bad vibes, he could not have detected the innuendo. I think that when you have an innuendo battle, subtlety is key.

After years of this, they finally offended each other so much that they broke into a physical fight. After that, the innuendo ceased. I guess all they needed was to bring things to a head out in the open.

By giddion — On Jul 24, 2012

I got so mad when a reporter who disliked my friend wrote and published an article about him that was full of innuendo. Anyone else reading it probably wouldn't have picked up on it, but my friend and I knew what she was doing.

This reporter was writing a review of my friend's new CD. She knew for a fact that he did not intend for his music to sound like anyone else's, and that was sort of a selling point for it.

Well, she said several times throughout the article that my friend loved Stevie Wonder and had tried to copy his sound with his new CD. She went on to compare several of the tracks to some of Stevie's.

We were outraged, but we didn't know what we could do. It wasn't slander, but it really wasn't a true representation of what my friend is all about, either.

By DylanB — On Jul 24, 2012

Sometimes, I think innuendo can be even more offensive than when someone says what they really mean clearly. That's because it is a bit disguised and can't be necessarily discerned by everyone.

I had a coworker who constantly used innuendo. She offended me and everyone else on a daily basis. She just could not stop herself.

Her remarks were so insulting, even though they were phrased in such a way that an outsider might not get why we were so offended. She eventually got fired because she used innuendo on one of the bosses, and we were relieved to be rid of her.

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