The Singular History of the Double Entendre
In January I went to a recording of the radio show I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue; (it would have been one of the last half-dozen featuring one of the original members of the team, as Tim Brooke-Taylor died in April, aged 79).* The great majority of the audience were like me, that is, middle aged to elderly and outwardly very respectable, educated, perhaps even staid members of the middle class; however, it gradually became apparent that we were all eager, even desperate, to hear absolutely the rudest, filthiest, most brazenly sexual jokes possible, as long as they were cleverly disguised in apparently harmless surface meanings.
We were not disappointed. There were more than enough double entendres to tickle all the members of the audience. It was a joyful occasion, and by the end I was weak from laughter. Double entendres (phrases with two meanings, one ‘innocent’, the other sexual or otherwise taboo-busting) aren’t confined to British humour, but are perhaps essential to the humour of these islands in a way that they’re not to other cultures. I shall concentrate on the history of homegrown hidden naughtiness.
The tradition of the double entendre goes back at least as far as the written word (and no doubt preliterate Stone Age Britons were laughing at suggestively-shaped vegetables). Here’s an Anglo-Saxon riddle:
I am a wondrous creature, a joy to women, . . .
My base is steep and high, I stand in a bed,
shaggy somewhere beneath. Sometimes ventures
the very beautiful daughter of a churl,
a maid proud in mind, so that she grabs hold of me,
rubs me to redness, ravages my head,
forces me into a fastness. Immediately she feels
my meeting, the one who confines me,
the curly-locked woman. Wet will be that eye.**
The teller of this riddle can pretend that the answer is an onion (or leek); we can imagine the faux shock of the riddler when he or she hears a suggestion that there is something improper about it (“How dare you! What a filthy mind you must have!”). But of course this is part and parcel of the joke, and everyone including the riddler knows that we’re really talking about a penis. This is the ur-text of a thousand British jokes (and no doubt the jokes of other cultures too): we all love a knob gag (especially an elaborate one, like this: a knob gag with knobs on) when it’s disguised by ingenious word play.
I say ‘everyone’ gets the joke, but usually there will be some people who, through age, education or lack of social awareness, don’t. This is an almost essential component of the mechanism of such humour. There will always be a happy band who break the code and who feel themselves to be superior to those who remain in the dark and don’t understand what everyone else is laughing about. As well as laughter, double entendres create a feeling of togetherness in an ‘elite’ (at the expense of dividing them from a less sophisticated group). The joke is even funnier when some people are looking bemused rather than laughing.
Chaucer is a master in stating one thing while simultaneously implying the opposite, often not simply for comedic purposes but also to aid his satire. Take his portrayal of the Friar from the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. We’re told that ‘He hadde maad many a marriage/Of yonge women, at his owne cost’ (‘He had arranged many marriages of young women at his own expense’***). At first we might think “How kind and public-spirited of him”, but as we read on we gradually realise that Chaucer is implying something less edifying. A couple of lines later we read ‘Ful wel beloved and famulier was he/With frankeleyns over-al in his contree,/And eek with worthy women of the toun;/For he had power of confessioun’ (‘He was popular and intimate with franklins everywhere in his domain, and also with respectable townswomen, because he had the power of hearing confessions’). The Friar, Chaucer hints, is far from the chaste and saintly figure he should be, but uses his position to seduce women, and smooths over any consequent awkwardness by abusing the confessional and, ultimately, marrying them off (perhaps when they fall pregnant) to presumably unsuspecting husbands.
Shakespeare loves a nice double entendre, and his plays are laden with them. For example, in Romeo and Juliet a servant has a line ‘the shoemaker should meddle with his yard and the tailor with his last.’ On the surface the joke is that the uneducated servant gets things the wrong way round: tailors work with yards and shoemakers with lasts. But a ‘yard’ was/is slang for penis (men rarely being prone to underselling their assets), so the joke is that he is calling shoemakers wankers.
Twelfth Night has a relishably rude joke so well hidden that I wonder how many of the audience spot it at all. When Malvolio first finds the letter supposedly revealing that the Lady Olivia loves him, he says ‘By my life, this is my lady’s hand: these be her very C’s, her U’s and her T’s, and thus makes she her great P’s.’ To begin with this sounds entirely unremarkable; he has seen her handwriting often, and is simply identifying the author of the letter. However, the address, which is all he’s seen at this stage, while it does indeed include U’s and T’s, has no C’s or P’s. How then can he be saying he recognises the way she writes these letters? The answer is that Shakespeare is impishly making the pompous, puritanical Malvolio express what he would undoubtedly regard as an indecency: c, u, and t obviously spell ‘cut’, and a cut is ‘A natural narrow opening or passage by water; a channel or strait’ (OED sense 21b). And thus makes she her great P’s. This joke is not only amusing in itself, but also makes Malvolio even more a figure of fun than he already is.
One of the most sustained examples of the use of double entendres is the famous ‘china scene’ from William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675). In this, the rake Mr Horner (his name being one of the least subtle aspects of the play) is pretending to be impotent so that husbands trust their wives to be alone in his company. Lady Fidget, desirous of sexual congress with him, has gone to see him, telling her husband that he, Horner, has a collection of china that she wishes to see. Sir Jasper Fidget arrives unexpectedly just as they are embracing (she explains that she is simply trying to discover if he’s ticklish). Not to be outdone, she goes off into another room, invisible to the audience, where the china is supposedly displayed, and locks the door behind her. Horner pretends to be worried that she will damage his china, and so enters the room by another door. Sir Jasper calls out through the locked door ‘Wife! My lady Fidget! He is coming in to you the back way.’ She calls back ‘Let him come, and welcome, which way he will.’
This initiates an inundation of innuendo in which ‘china’ is substituted for ‘sex’. When Lady Fidget re-enters with Horner she is holding a piece of china which she tells her husband she has been ‘toiling and moiling’ for. Mrs Squeamish, who has just entered, realises what Sir Jasper is too innocent to understand, and begs Horner ‘don’t think to give other people china, and me none; come in with me too.’ The exhausted Horner says ‘Upon my honour, I have none left now’, but she persists, pleading ‘O, but it may be he may have some you [Lady Fidget] could not find.’ To which Lady Fidget replies ‘What, d’ye think if he had any left, I would not have had it too? For we women of quality never think we have china enough.’ Horner tries to pacify Mrs Squeamish by begging her ‘Do not take it ill, I cannot make china for you all, but I will have a roll-waggon for you too, another time.’ A roll-waggon, or more properly rolwagen, was a kind of Chinese cylindrical porcelain vase, but he is also clearly saying, in the kind of simplistic double entendre that would find its way into the Carry On films three centuries later, that he will gladly have a roll with her, perhaps in the back of a farm cart. Geddit?
Double entendres continued unabated throughout the unsqueamish 18th century. Henry Fielding, for example, deals frankly and humorously with sexuality. In Tom Jones (1749) the heroine, Sophia, is falling in love with Tom, who has previously been in a relationship with Molly (and is indeed the father of her child). He rescues Sophia as she falls from a horse, breaking his arm as he does so, and the next day her maid, Mrs Honour, praises him extravagantly and narrates a little story of his recent behaviour. ‘He came into the room one day last week when I was at work, and there lay your ladyship’s muff on a chair, and to be sure he put his hands into it; . . . La! says I, Mr Jones, you will stretch my lady’s muff, and spoil it: but he still kept his hands in it: and then he kissed it - to be sure I hardly ever saw such a kiss in my life as he gave it. . . . He kissed it again and again, and said it was the prettiest muff in the world.’ A muff was a cylindrical fur hand-warmer used by ladies, but here Fielding is almost openly describing what Tom would clearly like to be doing to . . . well, double entendres work by leaving the true meaning unstated, so I don’t need to spell it out.
Later, Sophia, faced with a forced and unwelcome marriage, runs away, but is momentarily held back by the idea that she will please her father if she goes ahead with the match. However, ‘Cupid, who lay hid in her muff, suddenly crept out’, in other words ‘thoughts of her beloved Jones, and some hopes (however distant) in which he was very particularly concerned’ make her think again. The explicitness of ‘Cupid, who lay hid in her muff’, making clear that her feelings towards Tom are lustful as much as they are loving, is both charming and amusing.
The 19th century came over all coy, and it’s hard to find examples of double entendres in mainstream Victorian literature. This must be related to the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which prohibited the sale of ‘obscene books and prints’, and even more so to the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, which made the sale of obscene material a statutory offence for the first time. It’s next to impossible to find a parallel to the Fielding passage quoted above in Dickens, for example, though the latter is of course equally full of life and humour. The best I can do is the scene in which Mr Bumble attempts to seduce Mrs Corney in Oliver Twist; at the end he is seen ‘spreading himself before the fire with his back towards it, seem[ing] to be mentally engaged in taking an exact inventory of the furniture.’ Maybe Dickens is implying that Bumble is, as well as enjoying the expectation of becoming the owner of the furniture when he marries the widow, luxuriating in the thought of the bodily delights with which she will furnish him.
In Thomas Hardy’s great comic poem ‘The Ruined Maid’ (written 1866 but not published until 1901) the surface meaning of ‘ruined’ is ‘cut off from respectable society by having pre-marital sex, and therefore doomed to a miserable life’. However, the unencrypted meaning is ‘having the time of her life because she’s having lots of enthusiastic pre-marital sex’. His novels, on the other hand, although they deal with sexuality a little more frankly than those of most Victorians, are mostly sombre affairs with little room for double entendres.
The Victorian/Edwardian music hall skated round the laws and conventions by using many (relatively mild) double entendres. For example, the song ‘What Did She Know About the Railways?’, most famously sung by Marie Lloyd, concerns an innocent pretty young country girl’s first trip to London, where she is a magnet for male attention:
She arrived at Euston by the midnight train
But when she got to the wicket there
Someone wanted to punch her ticket
The guards and porters came round by the score
And she told them all she'd never had her ticket punched before.
Nudge nudge, wink wink.
Here’s a couple of jokes from Max Miller (1894-1963), who pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in the years following the First World War: ‘Have you heard about the girl of eighteen who swallowed a pin, but didn't feel a prick until she was twenty-one?’ (This is usually printed as ‘the prick’, but surely ‘a prick’ is funnier and makes better sense.)
‘I was walking along this narrow mountain pass - so narrow that nobody else could pass you, when I saw a beautiful blonde walking towards me. A beautiful blonde with not a stitch on, yes, not a stitch on, lady. Cor blimey, I didn't know whether to toss myself off or block her passage.’ It seems likely that Miller never told this joke on stage; it would have been deemed too outrageous. He was very good at remaining just within acceptable limits, cheekily flirting with outright obscenity (or what would have been seen as obscenity at the time) so that part of the fun of seeing him perform would have been admiring the skill with which he threatened to fall over the edge, but never quite did. He was the highest paid variety performer for a time in the 40s, and became so popular among all social classes that he appeared at the Royal Variety Performance three times. The double entendre is very well entrenched in British culture.
My favourite from the earlier 20th century is Donald McGill, who produced thousands of saucy seaside postcards from 1904 until his death aged 87 in 1962.
Unlike Miller, he fell foul of the law. Prosecution under the 1857 Act hinged on whether the material in question would corrupt its audience, which any sensible person could see McGill’s postcards did not. However, by the social mores of the time it was probably inevitable that self-appointed guardians of public morality would sooner or later persecute him. The earlier examples of double entrendres I’ve given would have had a select audience – even Miller told his jokes to one relatively small audience at a time who knew what they were paying to hear, whereas McGill’s cards were seen in their millions, on open display on racks outside shops where they could be viewed by everyone, including children and prudes. The surprise is that, apart from some relatively minor trouble in about 1906 and 1920, it took until the 1950s, towards the end of his career, for the law to catch up with him. This must have been extremely distressing for him, but fortunately the double entendre was far from down and out.
The radio show I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue (with which I began) is probably the best current source of ingenious, witty double entendres. I believe they’re all written by Iain Pattinson, who must be the best ever writer of this sort of joke. I salute him and thank him for the years of innocent (and not so innocent) pleasure he’s given me. I hereby award him the titles the raja of rudery, the duke of drollery, the potentate of the penetrating pun. The best of them have an elegance which somehow transcends their extraordinary sexual frankness, so that while thinking “Did I really hear that said aloud on primetime Radio 4?” you’re also lost in admiration at the skill with which the two layers of meaning are woven together. They’re simultaneously very sophisticated and very crude.
The bulk of the gags concern Samantha, the scorer (sometimes Sven, the ‘tree-trunk in trunks’, stands in for her (fnar fnar)). Most episodes end with the Chairman (originally Humphrey Lyttleton, now Jack Dee) announcing that Samantha has to leave because she’s meeting a new gentleman friend.
Here are some examples:
‘Samantha has to nip out now with her new gentleman friend. Apparently they’ve been working on the restoration of an old chest of drawers. Samantha is in charge of polishing, while he scrapes the varnish and wax off next to her.’
'Samantha has to nip off now as her plumber is sending round the man who does the annual safety test on her gas boiler, which always gives her great peace of mind. She says it's good to feel the plumber's tester calls at regular intervals.'
‘Samantha tells me she's been training as a jockey for a leading racehorse owner. She's hoping to be entered at Newmarket next week for 2000 guineas.’
‘Samantha has to nip off to the coast now for a spot of lobster fishing with some lads on their boat. They never forget where they dropped their pots 'cause it's where Samantha tossed a large buoy over the side.’
‘Samantha has to nip out again to see an elderly lord who regularly complains to Radio 4 about their parliamentary coverage. She says she thinks he's even going to start getting a little hard on Today in Parliament.’
‘Samantha tells me she has to nip off to a rare breeds farm where they still plough with huge beasts of burden. She's become friendly with a couple of farmhands who are going to show her their gigantic ox.’
‘Samantha has got to go off early to meet an entymologist friend who's been showing her his collection of winged insects. They've already covered his bees and wasps and tonight she's hoping to go through his flies.’
‘Record researcher Samantha has made one of her customary visits to the gramophone library, where she runs errands for the kindly old archivists, such as nipping out to fetch their sandwiches. Their favourite treat is cheese with homemade chutney, but they never object when she palms them off with relish.’
Some Sven jokes:
‘Sven tells me he has an exhausting job working nights driving those nice air stewards to and from the airport. His shift includes various routes, but he doesn’t get off until he’s been to Heathrow and Feltham.’
‘Sven tells me he’s rather hot and sweaty, so while he nips out to the college washroom and before he returns feeling a little fresher . . .’
‘ . . . before Sven nips out to fulfil his role as EC junior fisheries officer. Apparently it involves picking up Spanish fishermen and inspecting their fish nets for irregularly sized tackle.’
Many episodes also feature a joke about Lionel Blair, who was in a TV gameshow in the 80s called Give us a Clue, which was televised charades, in other words miming the titles of books, films, etc. The running gag is that Blair is gay (which he’s not). One double entendre that made me spit my tea out was: ‘Who can forget the sight of Lionel Blair pulling off Twelve Angry Men in under two minutes?’
‘Who can forget that breathtaking finish when Lionel Blair came from behind and had Dirty Harry licked in under two minutes?’
‘No one will ever forget the occasion he was given A Town Like Alice, when he chose to do a silent impression of the author, Such was the performance, Una Stubbs gasped in amazement when she saw Neville Shute in Lionel’s face.’
‘Lionel is best known as a dancer who puts on grand ballroom evenings noted for the excellence of their light snacks. There isn’t a fashionable young dandy in town who hasn’t been seen enjoying a nibble at one of Lionel’s balls.’
‘The grand mime-master of Give Us a Clue was Lionel Blair, but since the show ended he’s confined to the occasional pantomime appearance, and they say he’s becoming difficult to work with due to his mood swings. In this year’s Snow White, they said one minute he was feeling happy, and the next he came all over grumpy.’
(There are hundreds of more Samantha, Sven and Lionel Blair jokes below.)
The old cliché about the British is that they are emotionally repressed, with upper lips as stiff as their starched shirtfronts and with their feelings as tightly furled as their umbrellas. There’s some truth in this (even after we allow for the outdated sartorial details), but what this cliché misses is that this repression means that the British have traditionally had to find ingenious, roundabout ways of expressing their emotions. The double entendre is one consequence of this. A tightly furled umbrella can be instantaneously transformed into a phallic symbol. Much British humour is based on someone flourishing a priapic symbol while pretending that it is merely an umbrella, just as the teller of the Anglo-Saxon riddle pretended that the onion was just an onion. The audience similarly on one level pretend to accept this, but on another level are very much in on the joke and admire the adroitness with which the umbrella is brandished, and enjoy the skill shown in coming up with new ways of subtly (or maybe not so subtly) suggesting that their umbrella is not really just an umbrella. This is the art of the double entendre.
ADDENDUM: It occurs to me that the British taste for double entendres is exactly mirrored by our fondness for cryptic crosswords. (I believe that crosswords, except in Britain and Commonwealth countries, are simple synonym/general knowledge affairs.) In a cryptic crossword there are two layers of meaning, the surface and the ‘real’ meaning, which is exactly how a double entendre works. Sometimes cryptic clues are witty too. Here’s one I remember: ‘Couple in Buckingham Palace briefly flirt (9)’. To an innocent reader that means simply what it says: it’s a statement saying that two people somewhere in Buckingham Palace flirted with each other for a while. However, once you break the ‘code’ you get the answer (which is analogous to grasping the rude meaning in a double entendre). The couple who live in the Palace are Prince Philip and the Queen, Elizabeth Regina. Short versions (‘briefly’) of their names would be Phil and ER. Put them together and you get PHILANDER, which is a (not very close, admittedly) synonym for ‘flirt’.
* Two other members of the very early team, Barry Cryer and Graham Garden, are still alive but haven’t worked on the programme for some time. Cryer was in the audience at the recording I attended and came on stage at the end to great acclaim.
** Number 25 from the Exeter Book, compiled in the 10th century, translated by Megan Cavell. (See https://www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/the-exeter-book-riddles-in-context)
*** My translations.
Many more Samantha and Sven jokes here: http://www.g0akh.f2s.com/isihac/While_Samantha_Page.php