In a Word: A Nod to Innuendo

Nudge nudge wink wink.


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Senior managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

In Monty Python’s classic “Nudge Nudge Wink Wink” sketch, a young, extroverted bachelor (played by Eric Idle) approaches an older, more reserved man (Terry Jones) at a pub and attempts to strike up a conversation. The question he wants to ask, however, is of a very personal nature, and instead of coming straight out and asking, Idle peppers Jones with a series of ever more ridiculous innuendoes, all the while assuming that Jones’s responses are also intended as insinuations.

One of Idle’s lines is “a nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat,” a phrase that, whether they knew it or not, makes a linguistic, etymological connection between the character’s words and actions.

The word innuendo was formed through the combination of the prefix in- “toward” and nuere “to nod.” So the word innuendo literally means “to nod toward,” which is what Idle’s character is doing: indicating the conclusion he wants Jones to reach without actually pointing directly at it.

In the 16th century, innuendo was originally an adverb used in legal documents to mean “that is to say” or “to wit” — a fancy introduction to an explanation. The sense of “insinuation” came about during the 17th century.

A related word that you can add to your linguistic arsenal is nutation. It first meant “the act of nodding,” but these days it’s a technical term referring to the changes or “wobble” of the axis of a spinning body — particularly of the Earth.

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