An innuendo requires the reader to pay close attention to note exactly what it is the speaker or the narrator is talking about. The term is almost exclusively used negatively. Innuendos are usually derogatory in some way. They might be an insult disguised as a compliment, a reference to some negative event of the past, or they may be critical in one way or another. Usually, when a character uses an innuendo, they are trying to bring down another person or someone else’s opinion of that person.
For example, in several different Charles Dickens novels. In Hard Times, he uses innuendoes when he names characters in accordance with their lives. For example, “Slackbridge” and “Choakumchild.” In Oliver Twist, the author does something similar when he names a character “Master Bates.”
Definition of Innuendo
Innuendos can be used to describe a wide variety of situations. They are statements that hint at someone’s opinion of another person, an action, event, idea, or thing. These statements are usually negative in nature. Meaning that someone is hinting at the negative parts of a person, action, etc. Sometimes, these statements are more like criticism than they are a simple judgment given in passing. Plus, depending on the person and situation and the writer’s intentions, readers may or may not immediately catch the fact that someone used an innuendo. They can be used humorously in some situations, but they are almost always meant to bring someone down.
The word “innuendo” comes from the Latin meaning “a hunt by way of signaling” or “a nod.” This is a perfect way of describing what someone does when they make an innuendo. It should also be noted that in many different social situations, making innuendo about someone can come across as poor taste. It is far more respectably to simply say what one means rather than cruelly hint at it.
Examples of Innuendos in Literature
In this dystopian classic, George Orwell uses a wide variety of literary devices. Among these are examples of innuendos. The following passage is one of the best. It is a very good sinister example that helps to define Winston Smith’s job—rewriting history. He works in a mundane setting doing something incredibly impactful. Smith is assigned newspaper articles and bits of information that the Party wants to have altered to better reflect their version of history.
The Party is well versed at using innuendos in order to make it seem as though they’re doing something less terrifying than rewriting events. Winston realizes this, though, and the following lines are included in the book:
Even the written instructions which Winston received, and which he invariably got rid of as soon as he had dealt with them, never stated or implied that an act of forgery was to be committed: always the reference was to slips, errors, misprints, or misquotations which it was necessary to put right in the interests of accuracy.
He’s well aware of the fact that these are not “misprints” or “errors” he’s correcting. He’s the one who’s creating the errors in the historical record.
Explore George Orwell’s best books.
In this complex and beautifully written poem, T.S. Eliot uses numerous innuendos in order to allude to Prufrock’s nature. Consider the following lines and how they relate to the man’s sexuality and impotence:
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
In the first line, Eliot alludes to Prufrock’s impotence and his frustration with his role in the world. He’s an incredibly lonely man and is unable to reach out for physical touch and comfort.
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Putting in the Seed by Robert Frost
In this lesser-known Robert Frost poem, the poet uses numerous innuendoes in order to convey images of sex. Consider the following lines as an example:
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea;)
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,
Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
Frost uses phrases like “putting in the seed,” “smooth bean and wrinkled pea,” as well as others like “arched body comes” and “sturdy seedling” (later in the poem). These are meant to convey surface-level information about gardening but also work as part of an extended metaphor or conceit about sex.
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Innuendo or Double Entendre
These two terms are often related to one another due to the fact that they have similar definitions. A double entendre is a statement that makes humorously and intentionally, but it’s not necessarily negative. It isn’t always used to target another person or circumstance as an innuendo is. Readers might also find themselves considering how euphemisms compare with innuendos and double entendres. They are also similar but have the opposite intention of an innuendo. They are used when someone wants to lighten the impact of something they’ve said. For example, saying “passed away” rather than “died” or “big-boned” rather than “fat.”
Related Literary Terms
- Denotation: the literal definition of a word. It is the meaning that’s most commonly found in dictionaries and other academic sources.
- Double Entendre: a literary device, phrase, and/or figure of speech that has multiple meanings or interpretations.
- Riddle: tricky phrases or questions that have double meanings and are usually challenging to solve or answer.
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.
- Listen: Connotation
- Read: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot
- Read: Putting in the Seed by Robert Frost