Double Entendre | Definition, Meaning & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  January 9, 2024 4 min read
A double entendre is a phrase that can be understood in two different ways, one of which is obvious and innocent while the other may require some interpretation. The second meaning is usually sexually suggestive or inappropriate in some way.

Double entendre example
In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, there is a famous example of a double entendre. In Act 3, Scene 2, Hamlet engages in a wordplay with Ophelia:

Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Ophelia: No, my lord!
Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.

Here, Hamlet’s first line can be interpreted as either “shall I rest my head on your knee?” or “shall we sleep together?” When she refuses, he assures her he only meant the former, not the latter.

Double entendres are often used to communicate hidden meaning and inject humor in everyday conversation, movies, TV shows, and literature.

What is a double entendre?

A double entendre is a figure of speech that allows for both a straightforward, innocent interpretation and a more nuanced one, often with an indelicate undertone.

More specifically, a double entendre is a form of wordplay and relies on intentional ambiguity. It may exploit puns by using homophones (i.e., words that sound the same but have different meanings) or words with multiple meanings. Writers use double entendres to add humor by saying something slightly inappropriate in a witty, indirect way.

To make double entendres effective, writers should carefully choose their words so that their audience can understand the hidden meaning and the joke. Writers should also know their audience well enough to be sure that they will appreciate this type of humor.

How does a double entendre work?

The main purpose of a double entendre is to articulate one meaning clearly and another (more suggestive) one indirectly. It is often used as a rhetorical device in literature, sitcoms, and music lyrics.

Because some audiences may not detect the hidden meaning and still enjoy the humor, double entendres allow writers to introduce suggestive jokes without being offensive. For example, many Disney movies feature well-hidden but deliberate double entendres meant to entertain the parents watching the movie with their kids.

Double entendre example
In Finding Nemo, the characters are trapped in a fish tank and they devise an escape plan. At one point, they are instructed to “be as gross as possible. Think dirty thoughts. We’re gonna make this tank so filthy the dentist will have to clean it.”

Of course, they are referring to thoughts of how to literally dirty the tank, but adult viewers get the double meaning here.

Double entendre examples

Double entendres have been used for centuries by authors and playwrights not only for entertainment but also as a plot device that helps move the story along.

Double entendre example in literature

William Shakespeare includes several suggestive statements throughout his plays and sonnets. For example, in Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 4), there is an exchange between the nurse and Mercutio where Mercutio’s words carry a double meaning.

Double entendre example
Nurse: God ye good morrow (morning), gentlemen.
Mercutio: God ye good e’en (afternoon), fair gentlewoman.
Nurse: Is it good e’en?
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?

Here, Juliet’s nurse is angry at Mercutio because of his double entendre when he tells her what time it is. He uses the words “bawdy” and “prick” which have sexual undertones.

The second meaning of a double entendre is usually suggestive or inappropriate, however, that may not always be the case. Although some would classify phrases with innocent double meanings simply as puns or wordplay, others would still consider them double entendres.

For example, in Homer’s Odyssey (Book 9), there is such an instance of double entendre in the scene where Odysseus encounters the cyclops Polyphemus.

Double entendre example
Polyphemus imprisons Odysseus and his companions in his cave. Odysseus gives Polyphemus wine to get him drunk, and Polyphemus asks him for his name. Odysseus tells him, “Nobody is my name. My father and mother call me Nobody, as do all the others who are my companions.”

After Polyphemus falls asleep, Odysseus blinds him with a stick in order to escape. When Polyphemus cries for help, the other cyclopes ask who hurt him and he replies “Nobody has hurt me.” The cyclopes, thinking that no harm is being done, leave him alone.

This use of “Nobody” as a name is a double entendre. On one level, it’s a straightforward response to the question about Odysseus’s name, whereas on another level, it becomes a clever way for Odysseus to deceive Polyphemus and escape from the cave.

Do you want to know more about commas, parts of speech, email, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Verbs

Nouns

Rhetoric

Present participle

Concrete noun

Oxymoron

Linking verb

Common noun

Simile

Auxiliary verb

Abstract noun

Sibilance

Simple present tense

Proper noun

Cliché

Modal verb

Appositive

Paraprosdokian


Frequently asked questions about double entendres

What is a double entendre example?

A double entendre example can be found in Bob Dylan’s song “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” 

The song includes the line “everybody must get stoned,” which has a double meaning: it refers to stoning as punishment in the sense that everyone is punished at one time or another, but also to smoking marijuana.

What is the meaning of double entendre?

A double entendre is a word or expression that carries two possible interpretations with one usually being risqué, humorous, or suggestive. 

The term double entendre comes from French double (“double”) and entendre (“to understand”), which literally meant “double meaning” and was used in the senses of “double understanding” or “ambiguity.” The phrase is now obsolete and ungrammatical in modern French.

What is a triple entendre?

A triple entendre is a phrase or expression that can be understood in three different ways. It often combines the elements of a double entendre with an extra interpretation. Whereas double entendres are common in literature and everyday language, triple entendres are rarer due to the difficulty of weaving three layers of meaning together.

What is the difference between a double entendre and a pun?

Double entendres and puns are both figures of speech that involve ambiguity and double meanings. However, they are not exactly the same.

A double entendre uses a word that seems innocuous at the surface level but also carries a second meaning that would be too inappropriate or sexually suggestive to state directly.

On the other hand, a pun also exploits two possible interpretations of a word, but it is usually in a clever or humorous way, without any suggestive meaning.

In short, a double entendre may use a pun. However, not all puns are considered double entendres.

Tags

Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

Great! You've successfully subscribed.
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.