I. What is Innuendo?
An innuendo (pronounced in-yu-EN-do) is when you say something which is polite and innocent on the surface, but indirectly hints at an insult or rude comment, a dirty joke, or even social or political criticism. Innuendos are commonly used in everyday conversation as a socially acceptable way to be critical, mean, sexual, humorous, or even flirtatious. The word innuendo comes from the Latin phrase innuere meaning to “make a sign to” or “nod to.”
II. Examples of Innuendo
Most often innuendos are veiled hints or allusions to immoral, sexual, or impolite comments. Here are a few examples of innuendo:
Imagine a friend is dating someone in secret. A possible use of innuendo would be to say:
Mark’s been spending a lot of time with Allison, if you know what I mean.
The use of “if you know what I mean” is a common way to signal to people that you are using innuendo. The comment implies Mark has been doing more than simply “spending time” with Allison. In this example, the statement is used to gossip in a way that is socially acceptable.
For a second example, imagine a friend is preparing to cheat on a test with a stolen answer key. He says:
I’ve found a way to get some “extra help” on the test.
The use of quotation marks to emphasize the phrase “extra help” is a common way to use innuendo. This implies that the phrase is being used in a special way here and allows your friend to boast about cheating without admitting that he is cheating; it’s a safe way to talk about doing something that is not allowed.
III. The Importance of Using Innuendo
Innuendos provide speakers and writers with ways of saying things without actually saying it- which can be very useful when you want to say something potentially offensive or refer to illegal or anti-social activities. Although innuendo may be used for politeness, it is generally more insulting, humorous, or bawdy. Innuendos can be used to attack people and reputations without breaking the rules of social etiquette, to criticize governments or institutions without getting in trouble, or to humorously say something inappropriate without any consequences. In other words, innuendo is a powerful technique for getting around the limitations of polite discourse. However, you should be careful; if people understand your innuendo, it could still get you in trouble sometimes
IV. Examples of Innuendo in Literature
Innuendo is a common element of romantic poetry and humorous prose.
For an example of innuendo in prose, read this excerpt from Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones:
“The rat, huddled in the hollow of her palms, squeaked glumly. Delighted, she hugged him to her chest. “Oh poor baby,” she crooned, almost as if he really were a pet. “Poor Simon, it’ll be fine, I promise-”
“I wouldn’t feel too sorry for him,” Jace said. “That’s probably the closest he’s ever gotten to second base.”
“Shutup!” Clary glared at Jace furiously, but she did loosen her grip on the rat.”
In this example, “second base” is a dirty innuendo. As if the rat were a man, Clary loosens her grip on the rat, showing that she is embarrassed by her friend’s sexual joke.
V. Examples of Innuendo in Pop Culture
Innuendo is a common element of romantic songs, comedic advertisements, and even children’s movies. Here are a few examples of innuendo in pop culture:
The movie Shrek is full of innuendos, giving adult audiences just as much enjoyment as their children.
In this scene, Shrek implies that the size of the castle is an attempt by the King to compensate for his other shortcomings.
For a second example, watch this brief scene from Toy Story:
Aach! — Oh, hi, Bo.
I wanted to thank you, Woody, for
saving my flock.
Oh, hey -- it was nothing.
Whadda ya say I get someone else to
watch the sheep tonight?
Heh, heh…oh yeah, uh, I…
In this scene, Bo Peep says, “Whadda ya say I get someone else to watch the sheep tonight?” This innuendo allows her to shyly flirt with Woody, without outright asking him out that night.
VI. Related Terms
Both euphemism and innuendo are creative ways to express unpleasant ideas. There are two differences between euphemism and innuendo; one is that a euphemism is not supposed to be a hint; everybody is supposed to know what a euphemism means without guessing. And the second difference is that euphemism is not much used to attack people; it’s just a polite way to refer to something unpleasant. Innuendo is used to knowingly imply critical or offensive ideas.
Here is an example of euphemism versus innuendo:
Scott had to miss work on Friday. One coworker uses euphemism.
Scott has been feeling a little under the weather, and he’ll have to miss work today.
“A little under the weather” is a euphemism for sick, substituting the image of someone throwing up or sneezing with a softer image.
Another coworker responds differently.
Hmm. It seems strange that Scott has missed work on yet another Friday, of all days.
This implies that Scott’s reason for missing work is not sickness but wanting to enjoy a three-day weekend. Perhaps he is not really sick, but taking a nice trip, going to a concert, or watching TV.
VII. In Closing
If you listen closely, watch carefully, and read between the lines, you will find innuendos everywhere, from romantic poetry to pop songs to children’s animated movies! Human beings love to joke about sex and other forbidden topics and innuendo is a relatively safe, fun, and polite way to do that.