Instead of saying "Could I have some water, please?" a visitor says "I am thirsty". The host understands it perfectly and says "Let me get you something to drink. What would you like?" or at a diner, the beautiful blond says "I'm dry" and her date immediately calls the waitress. There are lots of situations when we say something and mean something else but the listener understands perfectly what we mean. No ambiguity as in the examples below, where an answer would be considered a joke. What kind of term describes that?


P1 "Can you pass the salt?" P2 "Yes, of course I can."

P1 "Have you got a pen?" P2 "Yes, I do."

Edit - For clarity - A whole sentence (not a word or phrase) means something but we mean something else, and listener understands what we mean.

  • Metaphor? Trope? Figure of speech?
    – mplungjan
    Oct 20, 2014 at 14:17
  • It is an "hyperbole": (whether or not the meaning of it is immediately understood is to be seen case by case: n. A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect, as in I could sleep for a year or This book weighs a ton.
    – user66974
    Oct 20, 2014 at 14:20
  • I do not agree on the hyperbole - yes, dry is exaggerated but is not a hyperbole in my opinion. You could sleep for a year or a week or eat a horse, but you could actually do this. It is not really saying something else, just exaggerating
    – mplungjan
    Oct 20, 2014 at 14:27
  • 1
    The examples are literal interpretation of the question. The OQ describes, as answered, the hint and getting the hint.
    – SrJoven
    Nov 11, 2014 at 11:47

7 Answers 7


It's an example of...

circumlocution - also called circumduction, circumvolution, periphrasis, or ambage
- an ambiguous or roundabout figure of speech

All those alternatives are "wordy" words. In common speech we're more likely to call it...

beating around/about the bush
- if you beat around the bush, or beat about the bush, you don't say something directly

So "I'm thirsty!" may just be a (slightly) roundabout way of saying "Give/Buy me a drink!". That kind of "oblique meaning" will be obvious to all native speakers, but some are idiomatic usages that simply have to be learned. So a man saying "I have to see a man about a dog" (or a woman saying "I have to powder my nose") often means exactly and only "I'm going to the toilet to urinate".


I'd use the word hint for this type of speech.

When someone says "I am thirsty," hoping it will be understood as "Please give me a drink," I would say they are hinting that they would like a drink.

Merriam-Webster defines hint (as a verb) as "to convey indirectly and by allusion rather than explicitly," and offers as synonyms allude, imply, indicate, infer, insinuate, intimate and suggest.

(Infer doesn't seem appropriate to me, however. She implied that she would like a drink correctly describes the above situation, but She inferred that she would like a drink is definitely not correct. Note also that intimate should be understood to be used in its verb form, not as the more common adjective.)


Unfortunately I could not find the graph either in english nor in german that I was looking for.

At school we learned, that there are different layers of semantics and we had a nice graph with a rectangle and arrows. Well, I can't find it, so forget about that. The thing I remember is that our teacher came into the classroom that day saying "Oh, it is a little cold in here.". Someone got up and closed the window. He smiled, telling us he just introduced todays topic.

"It is cold in here." does of course mean that he feels cold. But, in relation to the fact that the window is open, it also codes for his wish to have that closed. A lot of people in the room intuitively inferred that meaning. In german he called those different levels or layers of semantics. Unfortunately, semantic layers in english is not necessarily related to language and I don"t know what it would be scientifically called.

In the picture we had speaker, recipient, context and message, I think. Whithout context, the recipient can only decode the literal meaning of the message, but with context he can also receive the additional hidden sub-message.

This, of course does not answer your question by giving you the correct name, but maybe someone knows the name for this.


This kind of analysis, beyond the literal semantics of an utterance to its contextual implications, is called the linguistic study of:


This usually involves going well beyond the literal denotation of words in syntax to their cognitive and social context. An implication, like saying "Do you know what time it is?" to really mean "Please tell me the time" is called an


something that is communicated even though it is explicitly expressed. Often this is the effect of non-literal figures of speech like metonymy or metaphor.

  • "Pragmatics" is the right answer. I'm sorry I have already accepted another. "Magna cum laude" anyway.
    – Centaurus
    Nov 11, 2014 at 22:11


is a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is called not by its own name but rather by the name of something associated in meaning with that thing or concept.
For instance, "Wall Street" is often used metonymously to describe the U.S. financial and corporate sector, while "Hollywood" is used as a metonym for the U.S. film industry

source: Wikipedia

Other example than your dry/thirsty:

He penned a letter

  • Not exactly what I asked. A term for situations when we say something and mean something else but the listener understands perfectly what we mean. No ambiguity. Literally, a whole sentence means something but we mean something else, and the listener understands what we mean. Perhaps you would like to edit your answer.
    – Centaurus
    Oct 20, 2014 at 14:36
  • I cannot think of another...
    – mplungjan
    Oct 20, 2014 at 14:52
  • I do not believe this answer deserved to be downvoted
    – mplungjan
    Oct 20, 2014 at 18:01
  • 1
    I will upvote it so it can go to zero. It isn't what I asked but at least there was some effort to answer.
    – Centaurus
    Oct 20, 2014 at 22:13

If “What kind of term describes that?” is a question about how to understand indirect speech acts, one may find the following wikipedia articles of use:
Performativity, “...an interdisciplinary term often used to name the capacity of speech and gestures to act or consummate an action...”
Performative utterance, “The uttering of a performative is, or is part of, the doing of a certain kind of action...”
Performative text, “In the philosophy of language, the notion of performance conceptualizes what a spoken or written text can bring about in human interactions.”

Those articles, and others they link to, describe numerous linguistic theories about speech acts that do things (or cause them to be done). The Causative article may also be of interest, even if it doesn't give a concise answer to the question.


I would say an allusion, from the Latin verb ludere, lusus est "to play with"

  • Etymology
    From Latin allūsiōnem, accusative singular of allūsiō (“the act of playing with”),
    from allūdō (“play with; allude”),
    from al-, combining form of ad (“to”), + lūdō (“play”): compare French allusion.

  • Noun; allusion (plural allusions)

    An indirect reference; a hint; a reference to something supposed to be known,
    but not explicitly mentioned; a covert indication.

    So, in my opinion the visitor is alluding to wanting a drink in a playful manner.

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