Double Entendre

what she said

max miller

A double entendre is a figure of speech in which a spoken phrase is devised to be understood in either of two ways. Typically one of the interpretations is rather obvious whereas the other is more subtle. The more subtle of the interpretations may have a humorous, ironic, or risqué purpose. It may also convey a message that would be socially awkward, or even offensive, to state directly (the Oxford English Dictionary describes a double entendre as being used to ‘convey an indelicate meaning’).

A double entendre may exploit puns to convey the second meaning. Double entendres generally rely on multiple meanings of words, or different interpretations of the same primary meaning. They often exploit ambiguity and may be used to introduce it deliberately in a text. Sometimes a homophone (i.e. a different spelling that yields the same pronunciation) can be used as a pun as well as a ‘double entendre’ of the subject.

A person who is unfamiliar with the hidden or alternative meaning of a sentence may fail to detect its innuendos, aside from observing that others find it humorous for no apparent reason. Perhaps because it is not offensive to those who do not recognize it, innuendo is often used in sitcoms and other media considered suitable for children, who may enjoy the comedy while being oblivious to its second meanings. For example, Shakespeare’s play ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ used this ploy to present a surface level description of the play as well as a pun on the Elizabethan use of ‘nothing’ as slang for vagina.

A triple entendre is a phrase that can be understood in any of three ways, such as in the cover of the 1981 Rush album ‘Moving Pictures.’ The left side of the front cover shows a moving company carrying paintings out of a building. On the right side, people are shown crying because the pictures carried by the movers are emotionally ‘moving.’ Finally, the back cover features a film crew making a ‘moving picture’ of the whole scene. Another example can be observed in the 1995 film ‘GoldenEye,’ in which the female villain is crushed to death beneath a tree, to which James Bond quips, ‘She always did enjoy a good squeeze.’ This references her death, her method of executing men (crushing them with her legs), and her sexual appetite. Another example is a sports bar at the bottom of 5th Street in Benicia, California, named ‘Bottom of the Fifth,’ referring to (1) the address, (2) baseball’s fifth inning, and (3) a measure of consumption of a common quantity of alcoholic beverage. In contrast, comedian Benny Hill, whose television shows included straightforward sexual gags, has been jokingly called ‘the master of the single entendre.’

The expression comes from French ‘entendre’ (‘to hear,’ ‘to understand’), however, the English formulation is a corruption of the authentic French expression ‘à double entente.’ Modern French uses ‘double sens’ instead; the phrase ‘double entendre’ has no real meaning to a native French speaker. The related term, ‘adianoeta’ (Greek: ‘unintelligible’), refers to expressions that, in addition to an obvious meaning, carry a second, subtle meaning (often at variance with the ostensible meaning).

Double entendre is common in Western arts and literature. The title of Damon Knight’s story ‘To Serve Man’ is a double entendre, it can mean ‘to perform a service for humanity’ or ‘to serve a human as food.’ An alien cookbook with the title ‘To Serve Man’ is featured in the story, implying that the aliens eat humans. Examples of sexual innuendo and double-entendre occur in Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ (14th century), in which the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ is laden with double entendres. The most famous of these may be her use of the word ‘queynte’ to describe both domestic duties (from the homonym ‘quaint’) and genitalia (‘queynte’ being a root of the modern English word cunt). The title of Sir Thomas More’s 1516 fictional work ‘Utopia’ is a double entendre because of the pun between two Greek-derived words that would have identical pronunciation: with his spelling, it means ‘no place’ (as echoed later in Samuel Butler’s later ‘Erewhon’); spelled as the rare word ‘Eutopia,’ it is pronounced the same by English-speaking readers, but has the meaning ‘good place.’

In Homer’s ‘The Odyssey,’ when Odysseus is captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus, he tells the Cyclops that his name is Outis (No-one). When Odysseus attacks the Cyclops later that night and stabs him in the eye, the Cyclops runs out of his cave, yelling to the other cyclopes that ‘No-one has hurt me!,’ which leads the other cyclopes to take no action, allowing Odysseus and his men to escape. Often, older media contain words or phrases that were innocuous at the time of publication, but have a more obscene or sexual meaning today, such as ‘have a gay old time’ from ‘The Flintstones’ (‘gay’ means ‘happy’ in this context). One possibly intentional example is the character Charley Bates from Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist,’ frequently referred to as Master Bates. The word ‘masturbate’ was in use when the book was written, and Dickens often used colorful names related to the natures of the characters.

Shakespeare frequently used innuendos in his plays. Indeed, Sir Toby in ‘Twelfth Night’ is seen saying, in reference to Sir Andrew’s hair, that ‘it hangs like flax on a distaff; and I hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin it off;’ the Nurse in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ says that her husband had told Juliet when she was learning to walk that ‘Yea, dost thou fall upon thy face? Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit;’ or is told the time by Mercutio: ‘for the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon’; and in ‘Hamlet,’ Hamlet torments Ophelia with a series of sexual puns, viz. ‘country’ (similar to ‘cunt’).

In the UK, starting in the 19th century, Victorian morality disallowed innuendo in the theatre as being unpleasant, particularly for the ladies in the audience. In music hall songs, on the other hand, innuendo remained very popular. Marie Lloyd’s song ‘She Sits Among The Cabbages And Peas’ is an example of this (music hall in this context is to be compared with variety shows, the one common, low-class and vulgar; the other demi-monde, worldly and sometimes chic). In the 20th century there was a small crackdown on lewdness, including some prosecutions. It was the job of the Lord Chamberlain to examine the scripts of all plays for indecency. Nevertheless, some comedians still continued to get away with it. Max Miller, famously, had two books of jokes, a white book and a blue book, and would ask his audience which book they wanted to hear stories from. If they chose the blue book, he could blame the audience for the lewdness to follow (the white book was rarely used).

In Britain, innuendo humor did not transfer to radio or cinema at first, but eventually and progressively it began to filter through from the late 1950s and 1960s on. Particularly significant in this respect were the ‘Carry On’ series of films and the BBC radio series ‘Round the Horne,’ although this humor is carried because of the apparent ‘nonsense’ language that the protagonists use but in fact are having a ‘rude’ conversation in Polari (gay slang). Spike Milligan, writer of ‘The Goon Show,’ remarked that a lot of blue innuendo came from serviceman’s jokes, which most of the cast understood (they all had been soldiers) and many of the audience understood, but which passed over the heads of most of the BBC producers and directors, most of whom were ‘Officer class.’

In 1968, the office of the Lord Chamberlain ceased to have responsibility for censoring live entertainment, after the Theatres Act 1968. By the 1970s innuendo had become widely pervasive across much of the British media, including sitcoms and radio comedy, such as ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ and ‘Round the Horne.’ For example, in the 1970s series ‘Are You Being Served?’, Mrs. Slocombe frequently referred to her pet cat as her ‘pussy,’ apparently unaware of how easily her statement could be misinterpreted, such as ‘It’s a wonder I’m here at all, you know. My pussy got soakin’ wet. I had to dry it out in front of the fire before I left.’ Someone unfamiliar with sexual slang might find this statement funny simply because of the references to her cat, whereas generally a viewer would be expected to detect the innuendo (‘pussy’ is sexual slang for vulva).

Bawdy double entendres, such as ‘I’m the kinda girl who works for Paramount by day, and Fox all night,’ and ‘I feel like a million tonight—but only one at a time,’ were the trademark of Mae West, in her early-career vaudeville performances as well as in her later plays and movies. Double entendres are popular in modern movies, as a way to conceal adult humor in a work aimed at general audiences. The James Bond films are rife with such humor. More obvious examples include Pussy Galore in ‘Goldfinger’ and Holly Goodhead in ‘Moonraker.’ The double entendres of the Bond films were parodied in the ‘Austin Powers’ series.

Double entendres are very common in the titles and lyrics of pop songs, such as ‘If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me’ by The Bellamy Brothers, which is based on an old Groucho Marx quote, where the person being talked to is asked, by one interpretation if they would be offended, and by the other, if they would press their body against the person doing the talking. Songs in the blues style often employ double entendre. The first meaning is usually rather prosaic while the second meaning is risque. For example, Bessie Smith sang: ‘I want a little sugar in my bowl.’ It is clear that on one level she is referring to a sugar bowl, but the second or hidden meaning refers to her female genitalia; the sugar is a man’s semen. Another blues double entendre refers to thoroughbred racing: ‘My daddy was no jockey oh but he could ride/My daddy was no jockey but sho’ could ride. He said jes git in the middle and sway from side to side.’

Singer and songwriter Bob Dylan, in his somewhat controversial song ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,’ repeats the line ‘Everybody must get stoned.’ In context, the phrase refers to the punishment of execution by stoning, as described in the Bible, but on another level it means to get stoned, a common slang term for being high on narcotics (specifically cannabis). AC/DC’s unintended hit ‘Big Balls’ off their album ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’ refers to ballroom dancing, but the lyrics suggest masturbation of the testicles. Sometimes, even when the prosaic meaning is more obvious, the risque one is thought of as the factual one: in the Ted Nugent song ‘Wango Tango,’ the singer talks about his Maserati and says he is looking for a garage so he can ‘put his Maserati away’; The Maserati is referring to his member, and he finds a garage [female] (‘You think you see a garage up ahead and the damn thing is open – get it on’). Likewise, the humorous Bruce Springsteen song ‘Pink Cadillac’ uses a pink Cadillac car as a metaphor for a woman’s vagina. ZZ Top’s song ‘Tush’ uses the prosaic and risque meaning in exact equal portion, as in the band’s native Texas ‘tush’ has two meanings: when rhyming with ‘bush’ refers to the female buttocks but when rhyming with ‘rush’ is a slang term for ‘good enough’ or ‘adequate.’

Rapper Jay-Z is well known for his musical triple-entendres. In the song, ‘So Appalled,’ he says, ‘Not only am I fly, I’m fucking not plane’ using the word ‘plane’ literally to mean not being an airplane, the homophone of not being plain like other rappers, and another homophone of the word playing or ‘playin,’ the phrase ‘I’m not playing’ to mean he is serious or is not playing with other rappers. In another song, ‘Otis’ with fellow rapper Kanye West, he says, ‘Cock back / snap back / see my cut through the holes.’ In this case, the can be in reference of snapback hats cocked (or faced) backwards so that his hair-line or ‘cut’ is visible through the holes in the hat strap. It also translates to the act of shooting, where the hammer in the gun is snapped or cocked back before shooting and the cut of his diamond can be seen in the hole of the car window. And thirdly, it refers to American football, where the ball can be snapped or passed by the quarterback to the running back who sees the holes in the opposing team’s defense and cuts through.

Double entendres often arise in the replies given to inquiries. For example, the response to the question ‘What is the difference between ignorance and apathy?’ would be ‘I don’t know and I don’t care.’ The dual meaning arises in the iteration (though from a first-person perspective) of the definitions of both terms within the reply (‘I don’t know’ defining ignorance, and ‘I don’t care’ defining apathy). In the more obvious sense, the reply may simply indicate that the replier neither knows nor cares about what the difference is between the two words. Another instance of double entendre involves responding to a seemingly innocuous sentence that could have a sexual meaning with the phrase ‘that’s what she said.’ An example might be if one were to say ‘It’s too big to fit in my mouth’ upon being served a large sandwich, someone else could say ‘That’s what she said,’ as if the statement were a reference to oral sex. This phrase was used in the ‘Wayne’s World,’ ‘Saturday Night Live’ skits, and was a recurring joke on the US sitcom ‘The Office.’ The phrase ‘…as the actress said to the bishop’ is used in a similar way, usually in England, and United States military pilots often use the term ‘so to speak,’ and will deliberately construct sentences to avoid giving others the chance to call double entendres.

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