A double entendre is a literary device, phrase, and/or figure of speech that has multiple meanings or interpretations. It is any statement or allusion that can be understood in different ways. These phrases are created with the explicit purpose of having two meanings. One of these two meanings is obvious while the other is less so. The secondary meaning is often sexually suggestive, offensive, funny, or awkward in some way.
Elements of a Double Entendre
Double entendres often include one or more of the following:
Puns: are various plays on words in which similar sounding words are used to give a secondary, usually funny, meaning to a phrase. They’re usually funny for their obvious meanings and simple usage.
Innuendos: occur when a word or phrase is used to imply something negative about someone else. This negative thing could be anything offensive, sexual, or demeaning. The innuendo allows the insult to be delivered less obviously.
Euphemisms: is a word or expression that’s used to replace something that’s offensive, inappropriate or distressing in some way. These are used commonly in everyday speech and exclude phrases like “passed away” and “the birds and the bees”.
Why do Writers use Double Entendres?
Double entendres are important as they allow writers to take advantage of the complexity of language. The humor connected with expressing one thing articulately and one thing obliquely can be quite pleasing when done skillfully. The device reaches back through centuries of English language writing.
When is a Double Entendre Used?
This literary device can be found in all manner of fiction, poetry, and drama. It is most commonly related to a humorous statement but can also be less so, allowing for a deeper drama to play out in a scene with only some of the characters keyed into it.
Examples of Double Entendres in Literature
Example #1 Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Take a look at these lines from Romeo and Juliet as an example of how a double entendre is used to entertain the audience of a play:
Nurse: “God ye good morrow, gentlemen.”
Mercutio: “God ye good den, fair gentlewoman.”
Nurse: “Is it good den?”
Mercutio: ” ‘Tis no less, I tell you; for the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon.”
Nurse: “Out upon you! What a man are you!”
In this exchange, Mercutio describes the clock as having a “bawdy” or lustful hand that is “upon the prick of noon”. If an audience member is paying attention this piece of dialogue should amuse, as should the nurse’s reaction it to.
Example #2 Odyssey by Homer
In Homer’s famous epic poem there is an equally famous double entendre in the scene with Odysseus and the Cyclops, Polyphemus. When the Cyclops asks Odysseus his name he replies with “Nobody”. After Odysseus and his soldiers have blinded the cyclops he cries out “Nobody has hurt me.”
Example #3 The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
“Earnest” is certainly Wilde’s most famous play. It is uplifting and as clever as one would expect from the lead aesthete. One of the best lines from the play comes at the end when Jack says:
On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.
This comes after a series of complicated events in which the word “earnest” refers to the character trait as well as to a name. The characters in the story lead double lives and Jack learns that its important to be earnest, as in honest, but also to be “Earnest,” a fictional persona who stumbles upon various opportunities.