The word innuendo derives from a Latin verb meaning “to nod to, to signify.” As a legal term in the Middle Ages, innuendo was used to introduce the explanation of a word that was previously uncertain.
For example, in modern conversation, we often find ourselves explaining an ambiguous pronoun:
“Mary and Gilda went to the fair. She–I mean Mary–paid for the food.”
A medieval lawyer might have said,
“Mary and Gilda went to the fair. She–innuendo Mary–paid for the food.”
From being used to clarify, the noun innuendo has come to be used as a way to imply a thought without explicitly stating it:
innuendo (noun): An oblique hint, indirect suggestion; an allusive remark concerning a person or thing, esp. one of a depreciatory kind.
Here are some examples of current use:
Obeng (1997) defines specific categories of verbal indirectness, such as evasion, innuendo, circumlocution, and metaphor.
They seldom spoke and when they did they were always surrounded by family or friends, their conversations sprinkled with innuendo that only they understood.
However, the protagonists’ innuendo-sprinkled banter was also laced with sanctimonious, self-righteous platitudes about the senselessness of war.
The site NameItChangeIt.com is a nonpartisan site that brings the sexist innuendo of political rhetoric into the open.
The innuendo of political rhetoric has acquired a specialized term: “dog-whistle politics.”
George F. Knox of the Center for Professionalism and Ethics at the Florida International University Law School explains dog-whistle politics this way:
it’s like dog whistles – the pitch is beyond the capacity of human beings to hear. But the dogs can hear. And so it is with innuendo. Only the people who have a connection with it can recognize it.
Like any rhetorical device, innuendo may be used to enrich expression or to manipulate meaning.
Similar terms for ideas hinted at but not stated: