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What was once physical seems again to be mostly physical.
If you crack open a dictionary you’ll see that innuendo means an “indirect hint.”
When I say that innuendo seems these days to be physical what I mean is that most instances of the word I see and hear are in the context of sexual innuendo.
Part of this may be because the word innuendo has traditionally meant hinting at something bad or shameful. But even hints at past criminal convictions don’t now seem to be as closely associated with the word innuendo as are suggestions of illicit love affairs.
It seems to me that the badness of innuendo is changing too.
When the word first entered English it was borrowed from Latin by lawyers and used in legal contexts. That’s where it gained its bad reputation.
Innuendo was used in place of “in other words” and often when describing the ill deeds of a defendant.
But drop the word innuendo in a search engine today and not only are most of the results in sexual innuendo territory, they are also usually playful.
This playfulness may not be “good” in a wholesome-apple-pie sense but it seems no longer “bad” in a go-to-prison sense.
The reason I said that innuendo used to be physical is because of its etymology. The Latin word gained its meaning of “hinting” because one way to give a hint is by the physical action of nodding toward something. Innuendo is built on in meaning “toward” and nuere meaning “to nod.”
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.