I. What is a Double Entendre?
A double entendre is much like what it sounds like—a double meaning or interpretation for a word, phrase, or figure of speech. Usually, the first meaning is straightforward, but can be interpreted in a second way, which the Oxford Dictionary calls “indelicate”—meaning it is usually at least slightly inappropriate or risqué. Often, double entendres are used to mask or subtly deliver racy humor.
Using a double entendre requires clever and skillfully devised rhetoric—its success relies on the proper planning and delivery of just the right language at just the right time. In fact, many double entendres can be very subtle, so that only certain characters and certain members of the audience understand its double meaning and “get the joke.” A lot of times that humor is in the subtlety itself.
II. Example of Double Entendre
Imagine this scene in a comedy:
At a local farmer’s market, a woman is working at a fruit stand. A man walks up…
Man: “Wow, those are some huge melons you’ve got there. Did you grow them yourself? Can I see one?”
Woman: “EXCUSE ME?”
Man points to a pile of watermelons behind her
Man: “The watermelons, can I see one?”
Woman: “Oh, yes, of course. Here you go.”
What happened in this scene is a common scenario in comedy. The man meant one thing, but the language he used formed a double entendre, and the woman thought he was saying something inappropriate!
III. Devices used in Double Entendres
There aren’t specific types of double entendre and they don’t follow a particular form—they are very versatile and can come in all kinds of forms and scenarios. Rather, we use these other rhetorical devices to create them.
An innuendo is the use of a word or phrase to insinuate or imply something negative or inappropriate about a person or thing, without directly saying it. Usually the person using an innuendo is suggesting something derogatory, insulting, or offensive, but do it subtly with inoffensive language. You’ve probably heard the term “sexual innuendo,” which is a word or phrase that suggests something sexual without actually using sexual language. A lot of TV shows rely on innuendo to make inappropriate jokes while not being R-rated for language. For instance, the well-known joke “that’s what she said” (see Examples in Popular Culture) or old the line “do you want some fries with that shake?”
A pun is a type of word play that uses similar sounding words or words with more than one meaning in a humorous way. For instance, you may see “give peas a chance” on baby clothing—the double meaning is to try eating peas even though they seem gross, and to give peace a chance. Puns are hugely popular—we just love them in the English language. Even lots of simple jokes rely on them, like these:
Q: What did the ram say to his girlfriend?
A: I love ewe. (ewe is a female sheep, but sounds like “you”)
Q: What time did the man go to the dentist?
A: Tooth hurty. (tooth hurty sounds like 2:30)
A euphemism is a secondary word or expression that is used to replace something that may be too outwardly blunt, embarrassing, harsh, or inappropriate. You likely use euphemisms in your everyday language. For instance, people often say someone “passed away” rather than the harsher sounding “died,” or use “the birds and the bees” to teach kids about sex. But, it’s also a great way to be funny, like a kid saying they have to go “number 1” or “number 2” instead of saying “pee” and “poop,” which themselves are euphemisms for the words “urinate” and “defecate.”
IV. Importance of Double Entendre
Double entendre is an important rhetorical device that truly takes advantage of the diversity of language. It’s strength truly lies in its comedic value—it’s a timeless device for making audiences laugh through the clever use of words. It lets writers reach audiences of all ages because it employs subtle language that some will understand on another level. It’s been a widely used literary device for authors and playwrights for thousands of years, with examples dating as far back as Homer’s Odyssey. In fact, writers used to use double entendre to share inappropriate jokes and material with audiences, because sexual or sensitive topics were often banned from being used in literature and on the stage.
V. Examples of Double Entendre in Popular Culture
You’ve probably heard the one-line joke “that’s what she said” many times. It’s a staple in the mockumentary TV series The Office, where boss Michael Scott can’t resist saying it whenever something could be even the slightest bit racy.
This is joke is a great example of double entendre—on their own, the words said before it have an ordinary meaning, but once you add “that’s what she said,” it turns those common words into a dirty joke.
Many family movies use double entendres because they are subtle enough that younger viewers will not understand them, while entertaining the adults that may also be watching. In the movie The Cat in the Hat, the cat uses gardening equipment to make a joke:
Cat: All right, Nevins. Time to die.
-- [Whimpering] Kid: Cat, you scared him away!
Cat: Dirty hoe. I’m sorry, baby. I love you. Hmm.
This situation is the ideal example of how the language you use has to be clever—for instance, Cat insults the hoe for scaring the dogs away by calling it dirty. Of course since a hoe is used to shape dirt, it is actually dirty. But, by talking to the hoe as if it were a person, he could also be using the phrase as slang for something else.
VI. Examples of Double Entendre in Literature
As mentioned, the earliest examples of double entendres in literature dates back thousands of years. In the Odyssey, Homer uses double entendre to make a fool of the Cyclops Polyphemus. He tells the beast that his name is Outis, which means “nobody” or “noman.” After Odysseus attacks, he screams things like “Nobody is trying to kill me!” Here is the passage:
“‘What ails you, Polyphemus,’ said they, ‘that you make such a noise, breaking the stillness of the night, and preventing us from being able to sleep? Surely no man is carrying off your sheep? Surely no man is trying to kill you either by fraud or by force?’
“But Polyphemus shouted to them from inside the cave, ‘Noman is killing me by fraud; no man is killing me by force.’
“‘Then,’ said they, ‘if no man is attacking you, you must be ill; when Jove makes people ill, there is no help for it, and you had better pray to your father Neptune.’
Odysseus’s clever trick works, because the other Cyclopes on the island don’t come to help, believing that “no man” is doing anything to the Cyclops. They tell him that if “no man” is attacking him, he is probably sick, and should pray. Thus, Odysseus’ clever use of rhetoric allows him to escape with his life.
A very well-known and witty example of double entendre in literature (more specifically, on the stage) is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Shakespeare, a master of language, uses double entendres to create humor and awkwardness between characters. In Act III, for instance, Hamlet torments his love interest Ophelia with sexually suggestive language:
Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
No, my lord.
I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ay, my lord.
Do you think I meant country matters?
I think nothing, my lord.
That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
What is, my lord?
Here, the first thing Hamlet asks is if he should lie in Ophelia’s lap, and then clarifies that he means lie his head on her lap. So, we know that Hamlet was joking with Ophelia by suggesting whether they should sleep together. What’s more, during Shakespeare’s time, the word “nothing” was actually slang, referring to a woman’s private parts. So, audiences during that time would find it particularly funny that Hamlet is talking about “nothing” as a “fair thought.”