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American Annals of the Deaf

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Attitudes, Innuendo, and Regulators: Challenges of Interpretation
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While under the right circumstances that may be an actual question of one’s physical ability, most often it is a recognized idiomatic request. In a case of dialogue, Searle analyzes the following sentences:

          Student X: Let’s go to the movies tonight.
          Student Y: I have to study for an exam.

Most people would recognize Y’s response as declining X’s proposal, but the literal meaning is simply a statement of fact about Y—seemingly unrelated to the first utterance. To explain how X determines that Y is rejecting the offer, Searle details a 10-step process that integrates facts from the conversation, principles of conversational cooperation, speech act theory, factual background information, and inferences that X would utilize. Of course interactants do not consciously go through these steps. They occur naturally during the dialogue as a part of Gumperz’s conversational inference and Saville-Troike’s dynamic process. Searle’s steps do, however, reveal the opportunities for innuendo in indirect communication. One must simply suspend the principles of conversational cooperation at that point in the process. While this explanation of how the meaning of innuendo is understood by the addressee only scratches the surface, it does provide enough foundation to move forward.

The Role of Innuendo in Conversation

With an understanding of what elements of communication constitute innuendo and how they are recognized, the appropriate next step is to discover what purpose innuendo serves in a conversation. Within any given situation, under what circumstances will a speaker choose innuendo as a discourse strategy—and to achieve what end? Obviously, the generalized functions of humor and indirect communication mentioned above can be applied to innuendo. A more thorough insight can be gained, however, from research conducted on four of those functions: inclusion, exclusion, subversion, and circumlocution. In each case, innuendo serves as a strategic tool for communication.


The inclusive function of innuendo as humor is demonstrated in two circumstances: (1) between strangers and (2) within a community. When people meet for the first time, often they feel a need to “break the ice” (i.e., move past the initial uncomfortable feeling to build rapport). In a review of the sociology literature on the study of humor, Fine (1983) discusses research on how men use sexual humor in bars to gauge a woman’s reaction for additional contact. If the woman rejects the joke, the man can save face by asserting that his true invitation was not rejected, only the joke. If the woman laughs, the man assumes she is open to more intimate contact. The humor, then, is not merely a vehicle to initiate conversation, but a device to insinuate the speaker’s true intention. Separate from questions about the methodology of humor research, it is easy to recognize that innuendo can be used early in relationships to imply expectations.

Humor is also used to build a community. Fine highlights research about the Chippewa Indians that found “one of their categories of humor is humor that promotes group solidarity. . . . This humor is directed internally through testing, mutual ribbing, good fellowship, and even humorous self-deprecation” (173). The result is a trusting, communal relationship. This philosophy often motivates the rituals of initiations in a variety of social organizations. Community-building can also be demonstrated by gallows humor. Fine explains this phenomenon as humor that grows out of situations wherein an oppressed group pokes fun at its oppressors. The humor is often bitter and is used to galvanize the oppressed by transforming their plight into a source for unity. This gallows humor can function as subversion.

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