A double entendre is an ambiguous phrase in speech or writing that allows for two or more interpretations. At least one of the possible interpretations usually has to do with sex. If you examine the etymology for double entendre, you’ll see that it came into English from the French language and originally referred to “a twofold meaning.” Although it’s an obsolete French phrase nowadays, English speakers still find many occasions to put the term to good use.
Double entendres are not always intentional. Sometimes, people say something that leaves room for a secondary interpretation with an indelicate meaning. If you make this mistake, you’re likely to be accused of double entendre. This indicates that there’s a lewd second meaning lurking beneath your choice of words.
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The term double entendre is a noun, specifically a compound noun. Merriam Webster defines double entendre in two ways, depending on the context.
In a literary context, it means, “ambiguity of meaning arising from language that lends itself to more than one interpretation.”
Within the field of linguistics, it’s “a word or expression capable of two interpretations with one usually risqué.”
People may use double entendre as a form of innuendo, where they only allude to a meaning that remains mostly hidden or intentionally obscured. In other cases, the double meaning is explicit or overt. Whether or not the audience understands both interpretations, the term is still appropriate.
How Double Entendre Is Used in Literature
To understand how double entendre works as a literary device, it’s helpful to look back at some early example sentences in English literature. William Shakespeare famously made use of double entendre, as in this line spoken by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet:
‘Tis no less, I tell you, for the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon.
The phrase “hand of the dial” conjures both clock hand and human hand in this graphic example of double entendre.
Looking back to the 14th century, we can see that sexual innuendo was no less popular during the Middle Ages. In The Canterbury Talesby Geoffrey Chaucer, he included many double entendres such as this one from the General Prologue:
Ful wel biloved and famulier was he
With frankeleyns over al in his contree…
Of course, the author used the word “familiar” to imply that the Friar had knowledge of women in two senses. He was both acquainted with them and overly intimate with them.
Not all of Chaucer’s double entendres were sexual in nature. He loved wordplay and inserted puns into his writing wherever he could. He also made use of intentional ambiguity, as when he included the expression “good felawe” several times throughout The Canterbury Tales. In every case, he left room for interpretation. Is the character literally a “good fellow” or a hopeless rascal?
He also penned many double entendres centering on the word “queynte,” which meant both domestic and female genitalia.
For example, he wrote:
We wommen han, if that I shal nat lye,
In this matere a queynte fantasye;
Wayte what thing we may nat lightly have,
Ther-after wol we crye al-day and crave.
By using the pun, Chaucer created two “queynte”fantasies for the reader, one domestic and the other sexual.
Modern Examples of Double Entendre
Inventing clever double meanings can become a bit of a game. Many script or content creators, poets, and lyricists take pride in their creative wordplay. You can spot double entendres all over the place, from pop songs to internet memes.
Songwriter Bob Dylan employed double entendre in his song “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” penning the notorious line, “Everybody must get stoned.” This is a play on words where “stoned” refers to both marijuana and physical stoning with rocks.
More recently, NBC’s “The Office” made use of the offensive (and unintentional) double entendre by having the character Michael Scott insert the phrase “That’s what she said…” after any statement with room for sexual interpretation. Although the joke predated the TV show, The Office certainly made this form of double entendre-hunting more mainstream.
Daniel A. Gross, writing for The Atlanticcalled it, “a formula that required hardly any forethought and only a little cleverness…the do-it-yourself approach to sex jokes.” He compared Michal Scott’s catchphrase to earlier incarnations of the double entendre punchline, which included “…if you know what I mean” and “…said the actress to the bishop.”
Although historic double entendres may seem literary and cerebral to us now, the form has long celebrated lowbrow humor. Many of the classic examples of double entendre from the world of literature would have been considered raunchy by the audiences in their day.
The Function of Double Entendre
Double entendres serve several important functions.
As in The Office, double entendres often function as a form of comedic relief. With a simple turn of phrase, it’s possible to render an otherwise serious idea silly. This works especially well when the first meaning and the second meaning have very different tones. A smutty interpretation can deflate the importance of a consequential statement, making it seem ludicrous.
Layers of Meaning
Double entendres are easy to miss. In creative works, it’s possible to play with these misunderstandings. Perhaps one character hears the double entendre and the other doesn’t. Or better yet, the audience might know something that the characters don’t. It’s possible that a character says something without knowing the full impact of what he or she is saying. Shakespeare made excellent use of dramatic irony and layers of meaning within his plays.
Figures of speech are useful when authors wish to intentionally obscure their meaning. Double entendres work well to insult, poke fun, or attack power structures. Sometimes authors use the device to allude to other works obliquely. Puns, irony, and double entendres serve as useful tools for anyone looking to say something radical without making direct criticisms.
Double Entendre Examples in the News
Here are a few example sentences showing how the term double entendre has appeared in recent news stories. Several of these publications refer to a singer or a controversial song, proving that double entendres remain popular in modern music.
“Early blues performer Bo Carter often performed with influential string band the Mississippi Sheiks. On his own, he recorded so many double entendres it’s a wonder he could keep his bananas separate from his biscuits.” —Salon, “The 19 greatest double entendre songs”
The Difference Between a Double Entendre and a Pun
The difference between a double entendre and a pun can be nuanced.
Firstly, puns always rely on wordplay and a double understanding of the meanings of words. So, a double entendre is a pun whenever it hinges on different interpretations of the same word or similar sounding words.
As an example, in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus tells the cyclops Polyphemus that his name is Oudeis (translated into English as Noman), meaning “no one.” When the Cyclops claims that Noman (no one) blinded him, Homer gives us an example of both a pun and a double entendre.
That said, double entendres don’t have to be puns. For instance, when someone uses innuendo to allude to something smutty, that could be considered a double entendre even when no wordplay is involved.
Likewise, puns aren’t always double entendres. For example, a non-literary pun that plays on a homonym would not be an example of a double entendre unless it’s bawdy or indecent.
Lastly, puns are almost always intended to be funny, whereas double entendres can be serious.
What Is a Triple Entendre?
When a double entendre seems too meager, try a triple entendre! This term applies whenever the use of the word or phrase has three possible interpretations rather than two.
In recent years, triple entendres have become favorite rhetorical devices for hip hop artists.
As an example, here’s a brief but dense line written by Jay-Z, as analyzed by Shadowcast on Genius.com:
I don’t half-step on the ‘caine
As the primary meaning, Jay-Z uses the word “‘caine” to refer to cocaine.
In addition, because rap is an auditory format, the audience hears “cane,” which has the same pronunciation. With this homophone, Jay-Z indicates that he doesn’t literally “half-step” using a cane.
The third interpretation involves an allusion to Big Daddy Kane’s song, “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’.”
From Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare to Michael Scott and Jay-Z, suffice it to say that the double (and triple) entendre still has legs. Whether it appears within a highbrow literary context or a smutty one-liner, the double entendre remains as vital today as it was during the Middle Ages.
Kevin Miller is a growth marketer with an extensive background in Search Engine Optimization, paid acquisition and email marketing. He is also an online editor and writer based out of Los Angeles, CA. He studied at Georgetown University, worked at Google and became infatuated with English Grammar and for years has been diving into the language, demystifying the do's and don'ts for all who share the same passion! He can be found online here.