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Pronounced /ɪnsɪnjuːˈɛndəʊ/Help with pronunciation

This piece comes with a health warning: unwise use of this word may seriously damage your linguistic credibility.

It is one of the few words in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary to which an editorial note has been attached: “A tasteless word”, it says, signed with the initials of the then editor, Dr Robert Burchfield. I would not normally wish to posthumously dispute lexicographical matters with someone so eminent, especially one who edited the third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, but that’s surely a harsh verdict on a little word that flows trippingly off the tongue.

It is an obvious blend of insinuation and innuendo, a portmanteau construction containing elements of both. Throughout its life (and it is more than a century old, as we shall see), it has been used either humorously, or to indicate that a speaker in a book or play is uneducated.

The Oxford English Dictionary knows of it from 1885. Its first example says that it was invented by a legislator from South Carolina. This seems to be confirmed by this little squib, which appeared in Appletons’ Journal of New York in 1875. It manages the trick of being both heavy-handed and tongue-in-cheek at the same time:

The South Carolina Legislature has immortalized itself by coining the word “insinuendos.” Seeing the wideness of its application, the Tribune begs to be “permitted to express the obligations which society, and especially society’s representatives in official life, legislators, cabinet officers, and such, are under for an uncommonly fresh, beautiful, and expressive phrase. It admirably fits the time. It is a contribution to current politics as well as to philology.”

I can reveal that this belief about its origin is wrong. The unnamed legislator from South Carolina may have re-invented the word, but it was around earlier, since it appeared in 1871 in a now totally forgotten one-act comic drama by William R Emerson called Putkins. In this, he has an uneducated person say “I scorn the insinuendo!” But Mr Emerson cannot claim to have invented it:

In one of the Western exchange papers, an Editor calls a brother Editor, “a lying scullion,” “a pale faced dastard,” “a white livered puppy,” “in character below the vilest bawd-house bully.” Now this is what the man in the play calls an “insinuendo,” and seems to shadow forth — as it were — that the person assailed, is not a particularly reputable individual.

Constantine Republican (Michigan), 16 Nov. 1836. The paragraph is said to be from the New York Times, though it doesn’t appear in that journal’s public archives.

What was the play the man was in? It can’t have been Emerson’s, because that was first published 35 years later. It would be nice to trace it. Similarly, I can’t trace the Western paper whose editor had such a fine command of invective.

It is rarely seen today, but anyone using it would have to flag their facetious intent to avoid being assumed to be as ignorant as Mr Emerson’s character. But it is inoffensive enough, in all truth, and neatly encapsulates two ideas themselves closely related.

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Page created 19 Jan 2002; Last updated 06 Mar 2015