Definition of Double Entendre
A double entendre is a figure of speech that can be understood in two different ways. Double entendre examples usually have one obvious meaning and use innuendo to suggest the second meaning, which is often sexual or otherwise indelicate nature. The second meaning is not necessarily rude, however; there is double entendre in the following hypothetical interaction:
“What is the difference between ignorance and apathy?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care.”
There are often examples of pun included in a double entendre, either because of a homophone (i.e., words that have the same sound but more than one meaning) or other sources of ambiguity. In the above example, the ambiguity comes from the response being either a demonstration of the difference of the two words or an expression of boredom with the question.
The phrase double entendre comes from French words double and entendre, which means “to hear” or “to understand.” However, while the definition of double entendre does come from an obsolete French term, it is not actually used in French anymore. Triple entendres are also possible, while much rarer, as it is difficult to find a phrase that can mean three separate things.
Common Examples of Double Entendre
Double entendre examples abound in many cultures and have been popular for hundreds—or even thousands—of years. There are double entendres in films, television, music lyrics, and common jokes, such as in the following:
- Film: “I do wish we could chat longer, but… I’m having an old friend for dinner. Bye.”— Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs.” Hannibal Lecter is a cannibal and therefore when he says he’s “having” a friend for dinner it means he’s actually eating someone rather than the other meaning of “inviting over.”
- Television: “I need two men on this! That’s what she said! No time! But she did! No time!”—Michael Scott on “The Office.” Michael Scott’s go-to joke on the American version of The Office was to always call out “That’s what she said” to anything that could be construed in a sexual way. In this quote, Michael Scott is panicking about something and even though he’s in a hurry he can’t help himself from making a double entendre about needing two men to handle an issue.
- Rap music: “Mike Jordan of rap, outside J working/Now watch how quickly I drop 50”—Jay Z in “Hova Song.” Jay Z makes a double entendre on the meaning of 50. In basketball he would mean making 50 points, while in rap it refers to fellow rapper 50 Cent and how quickly Jay Z could ruin 50 Cent’s career.
There is also a game called “Dirty Minds” that gives clues to a riddle that could be construed in a sexual manner. For example: The hotter I am, the harder I get. I can only get laid once. The argument is whether I came first. Answer: Egg.
Significance of Double Entendre in Literature
Authors use double entendre examples for much the same purpose that we use them in daily conversation, which is to say for humorous purposes or to be clever. In other eras, especially Victorian England, innuendo was not allowed in stage performances for fear of offending ladies’ sensibilities. At times this form of lewdness could be prosecuted. Indeed, some books have been banned through the ages because of their sexual content, explicit or implicit. Yet double entendres have remained popular for centuries. Early examples can be found even in the Odyssey, when Odysseus gives a false name to the Cyclops that meant “no one,” so that when Odysseus injured him the Cyclops yelled out, “No one has hurt me!”
Examples of Double Entendre in Literature
HAMLET: My excellent good friends! How dost thou, Guildenstern?
Ah, Rosencrantz! Good lads, how do you both?
ROSENCRANTZ: As the indifferent children of the earth.
GUILDENSTERN: Happy, in that we are not overhappy.
On Fortune’s cap we are not the very button.
HAMLET: Nor the soles of her shoes?
ROSENCRANTZ: Neither, my lord.
HAMLET: Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favors?
GUILDENSTERN: Faith, her privates we.
HAMLET: In the secret parts of Fortune? Oh, most true. She is a strumpet. What news?
ROSENCRANTZ: None, my lord, but that the world’s grown honest.
(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
William Shakespeare used countless examples of double entendre in his poetry and plays. At times it can be difficult for modern audiences to pick up on all the puns he used in his writing because the meanings of words have changed over the centuries. For example, in his day “nothing” was a euphemism for female genitalia (which certainly changes the way you might think about his play Much Ado About Nothing—a clear double entendre to audience members in Elizabethan England). In the above exchange, Hamlet talks to his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a joking manner. When he asks them how they are they quickly turn to banter with double entendre, such as Guildenstern’s use of “privates” (either army members or genitalia) and Hamlet’s response about the “secret parts of Fortune.” Indeed, of all of his characters, Hamlet was one that Shakespeare gave the highest number of clever, punning lines with double entendre.
JACK: On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.
(The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde)
Oscar Wilde’s entire play The Importance of Being Earnest is based on the double entendre between being earnest, e.g., honest, and being a person named Ernest. Characters in the play live double lives and comment on the effects of this trickery, as is witnessed by the character of Jack who pretends to be named Ernest. He ends the play with the above quote, summing up the lesson he has learned; it is important to be honest, just as being named Ernest can open up doors.
Proctor (drinks a long draught, then, putting the glass down): You ought to bring some flowers in the house.
Elizabeth: Oh! I forgot! I will tomorrow.
Proctor: It’s winter in here yet. On Sunday let you come with me, and we’ll walk the farm together; I never see such a load of flowers on the earth. (With good feeling he goes and looks up at the sky through the open doorway.) Lilacs have a purple smell. Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think. Massachusetts is a beauty in the spring!
(The Crucible by Arthur Miller)
The marriage between John Proctor and Elizabeth is at the crux of the conflict in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. John Proctor has recently had an affair and he and Elizabeth are trying to get over it. However, she still harbors a great deal of resentment. In the above example of double entendre, Proctor comments on the lack of flowers in the house. Then he says, “It’s winter in here yet.” One meaning can be construed as the absence of brightness and cheer that flowers bring, while another meaning is the frostiness that still exists between him and his wife.
Test Your Knowledge of Double Entendre
1. Which of the following statements is the best double entendre definition?
A. An overtly indelicate phrase.
B. A turn of phrase that can be construed in two ways, usually one of which has a sexual meaning.
C. Words with the same sound but different meanings.
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2. Which of the following real news headlines is NOT a double entendre example?
A. Children make nutritious snacks
B. New obesity study looks for larger test group
C. Titanic sinks four hours after hitting iceberg
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3. Which of the following quotes from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an example of double entendre?
HAMLET: I mean, my head upon your lap?
OPHELIA: Ay, my lord.
HAMLET: Do you think I meant country matters?
OPHELIA: I think nothing, my lord.
HAMLET: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
HAMLET: To be, or not to be- that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die- to sleep.
POLONIUS: Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.
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