Double entendre  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

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 is typically sexually suggestive. 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. another word with the same pronunciation) can be used as a pun as well as a "double entendre" of the subject.

Contents

Structure

When innuendo is used in a sentence, it could go completely undetected by someone who was not familiar with the hidden meaning, and he or she would find nothing odd about the sentence (aside from other people finding it humorous for seemingly no reason). Perhaps because an innuendo is not considered offensive to those who do not "get" the hidden implication, it is often prevalent in sitcoms and other comedy which would in fact be considered suitable for children. Children would find this comedy funny, but because most children lack understanding of the hidden implication in innuendo, they would find it funny for a completely different reason than most adult viewers. It can also be used to make more socially acceptable sexual humor. 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 usage of "nothing" as slang for noticing.

A triple entendre is a rare variation of a double entendre where a phrase can be understood in any of three ways. An example of this would be the cover of the 1981 Rush album Moving Pictures. The title could be read to mean a moving crew transporting paintings, emotional (moving) reactions to the paintings, or a film.

British comedian Benny Hill, whose television shows included straightforward sexual gags, has been jokingly called "the master of the single entendre".

Etymology

Although "double entendre" was a French expression when adopted into English, and although both words are part of modern French, their use together has disappeared in French. Double retains the same meaning in French, and entendre translates to "to hear" but more in the meaning of "understanding." French refers to such phrases with the term double sens (literally "double meaning"), or double entente, (double or equivocal meaning; a play on words). Another variation is sous-entendre (verb) or sous-entendu (name), which mean literally "under meaning", that is, with a hidden meaning under the primary meaning.

Historical usage

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."

The poem Ozymandias by Percy Shelley published in 1818 is an example of ironic double entendre. Looking upon the shattered ruins of a colossus, the traveller reads:

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

The speaker believes the king's sole intended meaning of "despair" was that nobody could hope to equal his achievements, but that the traveler found another meaning – that the mighty are mortal and will inevitably share his fate of oblivion in the sands of time. This portrayal of an unintended double entendre exemplifies a case of the double entendre as the poet's figure of speech.

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.

Modern usage

Double entendres are popular in modern movies and television works, as a way to conceal adult humor in a work aimed at general audiences. The James Bond films are rife with such humour. For example, in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), when Bond is disturbed by the telephone while in bed with a Danish girl, he explains to Moneypenny that he's busy brushing up on his Danish. Moneypenny responds in kind by pointing out that Bond was known as "a cunning linguist", a play on the word 'cunnilingus'.

Another popular 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 then say "That's what she said," turning the statement into a reference to oral sex. This phrase was used by Wayne in the "Wayne's World" Saturday Night Live skits, and is a favorite, oft-repeated joke used by Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) on the US version of The Office.

The lyrics to If U Seek Amy, a song by Britney Spears, is another example of double entendre; the lyrics being "All of the boys and all of the girls are begging to If U Seek Amy". Whereas in one sense the lyrics discuss a missing girl called Amy, the alternative meaning relies on "If U Seek Amy" sounding like "F U C K me," suggesting sexual liaisons with Spears.

The song "Big Balls", by the Australian rock band AC/DC, is another example of a double entendre. The lyrics can refer to a person who hosts social balls, and also to sexual activities and testicles (the latter of which are called "balls" as slang).

British comedy

British comedy

Sexual innuendo is common in British sitcoms and radio comedy such as I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue and Round the Horne. For example, in Are You Being Served?, Mrs. Slocombe makes frequent references to her "pussy", 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 pussy cat, whereas generally a viewer would be expected to detect the innuendo ("pussy" is sexual slang for vagina).

The use of innuendo and double-entendre in British comedy is nothing new. Examples can be traced as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, 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.)

Shakespeare also 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: "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").

Attitudes to this kind of humour have changed enormously since the 19th century. In the Victorian theatre, innuendo was considered unpleasant, particularly for the ladies in the audience, and was not allowed. In the music hall, on the other hand, innuendo was in constant use in songs. (Music Hall in this context is to be compared with Variety, the one common, low-class and vulgar; the other demi-monde, worldly and sometimes chic.)

In the 20th century, there began to be a bit of a 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, it was their own choice and he could feel reasonably secure he was not offending anyone.

The blue, innuendo type of humour did not transfer to radio or cinema at that time, 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 humour 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, has remarked that a lot of blue innuendo came from servicemen's jokes, which were understood by most of the cast (who had all served as enlisted soldiers) and many of the audience, but which would pass over the heads of most of the BBC producers and directors, who were mostly "Officer class."

In 1968, the office of the Lord Chamberlain ceased to have responsibility for censoring live entertainment, thanks to the Theatres Act 1968. By the 1970s innuendo had become widely pervasive across much of the British media.

See also




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