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Attitudes, Innuendo, and Regulators: Challenges of Interpretation
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Just as many variations of wordplay humor have been gathered under the umbrella heading of innuendo, so too have variations in indirect communication. This runs contrary to other research on indirectness. In a study about indirectness in political discourse, for example, Obeng (1997) defines specific categories of verbal indirectness, such as evasion, innuendo, circumlocution, and metaphor. Each category explains a distinct kind of verbal misdirection or a particular discourse strategy. Innuendo in that study is narrowly defined as an insinuation about an interactant’s character. Circumlocution is based on Goffman’s work and is defined as “a variety of evasive tactics deployed by an interactant to protect himself or herself against face-fall” (Obeng, 1997, p. 55). Obeng specifically differentiates between circumlocution and innuendo, saying, “Unlike other verbal indirectness strategies such as metaphor, innuendo, proverbs, and aphorisms which exploit the polysemy of words, circumlocution pertains to the rhetorical structure of discourse” (ibid, p. 55).

For this paper, however, both the innuendo and circumlocution categories above will constitute innuendo. Certainly Obeng’s definition of innuendo falls directly into the scope of the term’s definition for this paper. Circumlocution will be included because humor and indirectness are two typical evasive tactics used by interactants to save face. Goffman’s definition deftly describes one of the primary functions of innuendo in conversation. This will be discussed in greater depth later in this paper. Still, Obeng’s distinction of circumlocution does underscore the breadth of innuendo, which is not only reflected in lexical or phrasal items, but may also be characteristic of a discourse-level strategy.

Linguistics, it seems, finds this umbrella category of innuendo too all-encompassing for sufficient analysis. To investigate the relevant aspects of innuendo, one must consider applicable research on puns, jokes/humor, indirectness, figurative language, irony, and parody. Information for this literature review was gathered from fields of linguistics, sociolinguistics, pragmatics, sociology, ethnography of communication, semantics, psychology, and anthropology. This paper cannot capture all the information available, but it will highlight particular findings from researchers that interpreters use to develop strategies to address innuendo.

Humor and Innuendo

Humor research has approached the topic from two perspectives: appreciation and production. The emphasis in linguistics fields has been primarily on the former, leaving most of the latter to psychology. Production of linguistics humor has received almost no attention from researchers (Pepicello & Weisberg, 1983). Some reasons for this will be outlined in the Issues with Research to Date portion below. Research conducted on humor appreciation has historically focused on jokes and puns. These forms of humor lend themselves naturally to analysis because the rituals involved offset them from other parts of a conversation. Phrases like, “Did you hear the one about . . . ?” or “Two guys walk into a bar . . .” mark the utterance to follow as a joke. Similar kinds of phrases have been found for puns and riddles. Analysis, then, is bound by the introduction and the punch line. This allows researchers to follow tried-and-true methodologies used to study other clearly bounded communication like greetings and leave-taking. Puns are similarly offset from the rest of the sentence and easily studied as a comparison between the true word and the pun.

Sociolinguistics changed the complexion of how communication is studied by investigating conversation in context. Researchers recognized that people do not speak in complete sentences. Attention was turned from studying sentences to studying utterances—the less-bound fragments of sentences that people use to communicate. So too has the focus broadened in humor research as investigators seek to learn more about nonbounded humor used in conversational joking. Herein lies the opportunity to discover more about innuendo, which, as mentioned above, is intertwined with verbal irony, teasing, conversational punning, and the like. Moreover, observing in context how innuendo is used can provide some insight into the speaker’s goal when he or she chooses that discourse strategy.


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