Double entendre

[duhb-uhl ahn-tahn-druh, -tahnd; Fr. doo-blahn-tahn-druh]
Not to be confused with puns, which employ multiple phrases.
A double entendre is a figure of speech similar to the pun, in which a spoken phrase can be understood in either of two ways. This can be as simple as a phrase which has two mutually exclusive meanings, and is thus a clever play on words. An example of this would be the title of the short story, "The Most Dangerous Game", by Richard Connell, in which the title can refer both to the "game" that is most dangerous to hunt, and "game" that is most dangerous to play. Also, sometimes double entendres exist as homophones that form a sentence that is pronounced similar to a well-known phrase.

In most cases a risqué or sexual element is central to the understanding of the double entendre. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a double entendre as especially being used to "convey an indelicate meaning". In these cases, the first meaning is presumed to be the more innocent one, while the second meaning is risqué, or at least ironic, requiring the hearer to have some additional knowledge.


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.


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", were the trademark of Mae West, in her early-career vaudeville performances as well as in her later 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. In the end of the 1991 thriller, The Silence of the Lambs, Dr. Hannibal Lecter states he is "having an old friend for dinner," which could either mean he's is going to have dinner with an old friend, or the more likely meaning, is going to have an old friend as his dinner.

Another example would be: "I broke a G-string while fingering A minor," which is a double entendre understood only by those who would understand that the G-string is a guitar string and A minor is a chord.

Many commercials for feature double entendres, as an attractive woman talks about the "O" and "Big O", which could refer to the website itself, but clearly call to mind the word "orgasm", which is often called the "O" or the "Big O".

One popular joke that simultaneously contains and defines a double entendre typically is told as: "A girl walked into a bar and asked the bartender for a double entendre. So he gave her one." A variation can be told as: "A man walks into a bar and asks the barmaid for an entendre. She says, 'Certainly sir, single or double?' He says double and she replies, 'OK then sir, yours is a large one.'"

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 statement was often used by Wayne in the "Wayne's World" Saturday Night Live skits, and is also used many times on the U.S. television show The Office by Michael Scott.

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; 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 [Sir Toby] hope to see a housewife take thee [Sir Andrew] 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.

Triple entendre

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. Another example is from a famous T-shirt at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when women first were accepted. The phrase on the shirt, "women multiply at MIT" could mean that women literally multiply numbers, that more and more women are coming to MIT (and the number of women is multiplying), or that women are having children at MIT.

Theoretically, an "entendre" could be extended indefinitely beyond the triple entendre to encompass quadruple entendres, quintuple entendres, et cetera. For the sake of brevity, however, entendres beyond the triple entendre are often referred to as "N-entendres" or "double-n-tendres".


  • The title of Canadian reggae star Snow's 1993 debut album, "12 Inches of Snow." The title could be read as a play on the artist's name insofar as meteorologists sometimes measure snowfall accumulation in inches. It could also be read as a crude phallic reference. Finally, it could be read as a reference to the diameter of a vinyl LP or 12" single. It could also be read as a quadruple entendre if you also read "Snow" as a reference to cocaine and 12 inches as the length of a line.
  • The Hotter'N Hell Hundred bicycle race in Wichita Falls, Texas, where "Hundred" has one of three meanings:
    • The city's centennial (during which the first race was conducted),
    • The length of the bicycle race (100 miles), or
    • A reference to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (the race is run during late August, when temperatures at this level and above are not uncommon).

An apocryphal story about Napoleon says that when he attacked Italy, the establishment recognized the futility of resisting and surrendered to his army. However, the peasantry continued to wage guerrilla war, harassing his troops and stealing his supplies. While dining with some Italian aristocrats, Napoleon commented that "All Italians are thieves."

A noble lady present corrected him, stating: "No maestro, non tutti, ma buona parte."

The first meaning is the literal translation, appearing to agree: “No sire, not all, but most.”

The second meaning is: “No sire, not all, but the ‘best’ part” (i.e. those whom you call ‘thieves’ are really the best Italians, the patriots).

The third meaning insinuates that Bonaparte is the thief (for stealing Italy) and that he is Italian ("No, sir, not all, but Bonaparte"). This meaning is particularly biting, as Napoleon hailed from Corsica, where the French population considered themselves to be superior to the Italian population.

See also


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