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A double entendre is a figure of speech in which a spoken or written phrase is devised to be or is unintentionally 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 sometimes 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.
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 comedy considered suitable for children, who may enjoy the comedy while being oblivious to its second meanings. For example, it has been suggested that 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. Since "moving" can also mean selling (as in moving the merchandise) and since albums are often referenced by a single word in their title (for brevity), the band's use of an appealing multiple-entendre cover could be said to be for the purpose of "moving Pictures" - and as such be a quadruple entrendre. Another example can be observed in the 1995 film GoldenEye, in which the female villain is squeezed to death, to which James Bond quips, "She always did enjoy a good squeeze." This alludes to 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.
The expression comes from French double = "double" and entendre = "to hear" (but also "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 title of Damon Knight's story To Serve Man is a double entendre, which 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 Oudeis (ουδεις = 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.
In some instances, it is unclear whether a double entendre was intended. For example, the character Charley Bates from Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist is 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, 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, he could blame the audience for the lewdness to follow (the white book was rarely used).
In the United States, innuendo and double entendre were only lightly used in radio media until the 1980s when the Howard Stern Show began to push the envelope of what was acceptable on the radio through use of double entendre and ironies. This garnered so much attention it spawned an entire genre of Radio called "Shock Jock Radio" where DJs will push the limits of what is an "acceptable" double entendre to use on over the air as the FCC has been known to hand out hefty fines for the use of double entendre on Radio if they deem it to be in violation of their standards.
In Britain, innuendo humour 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 vagina).
Modern comedies, such as the US version of The Office, do not hide the fact of adding sexual innuendos into the script. One repeated example comes from main character Michael Scott who often deploys the catch-phrase "that's what she said" after another character's innocent statement, to turn it retroactively into a sexual pun.
On The Scott Mills Show on BBC Radio 1, listeners are asked to send in clips from radio and TV with double meanings in a humorous context, a feature known as "Innuendo Bingo". Presenters and special guests fill their mouths with water and listen to the clips, and the last person to spit the water out with laughter wins the game.
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 humour 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 is busy "brushing up on a little Danish". Moneypenny responds in kind by pointing out that Bond was known as "a cunning linguist", a play on the word "cunnilingus". 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 risqué. 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 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". Finally, a more recent blues song (circa the 1980s) contained the double entendre: "Granpa can't fly his kite because grandma won't give him no tail".
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). In their unintended hit "Big Balls" on the album Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap AC/DC speaks of holding "balls", deliberately referring to both formal dances and testicles. The humorous Bruce Springsteen song "Pink Cadillac" uses a pink Cadillac car as a metaphor for a woman's vagina. During the 1940s, Benny Bell recorded several "party records" that contained double entendre including "Everybody Wants My Fanny".
Rap music is known for several complex metaphors and double entendres. Tupac's song 'Me and my girlfriend' is a double entendre as he is actually rapping about his gun.
Donald McGill was the creator of many cartoon seaside postcards which used innuendo.
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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