The inverse trope to Have a Gay Old Time. Due to changes in vocabulary over time, something that originally was supposed to be Double Entendre-laden can often sound perfectly straightforward—or sometimes incomprehensible—to modern ears.
Shakespeare is probably the most common exemplar of this trope, both because he wrote a long time ago and because he had a filthy streak wider than the Queen's farthingale. There was also no such thing as a "sensitive" listener who could not stand to hear a dirty joke in his day (except the Puritans, but they considered theatre itself to be sinful, so Shakespeare never seemed to keep their tastes in mind). The Queen's (and later King's) censors cared more about sedition and blasphemy than about sexual or scatological humor. This is how the awful puns in Henry V were allowed to be used while seemingly mild oaths like "Gadzooks" (God's hooks, or the nails that held Jesus to the cross) were banned.
Nunnery meant both a convent for nuns and was an Unusual Euphemism for a brothel. Now you know. For situations about women actually entering a convent, see Taking the Veil.
open/close all folders
Shakespeare's plays are absolutely chocked full of puns, references, double-meanings, and innuendos that are completely lost on modern audiences due to how the English language and society have evolved. One really has to read annotated versions to get everything that Shakespeare intended. Of course, this presents its own problems.
In As You Like It, the clown Touchstone gives a speech which is mostly funny because Shakespeare expects "hour" and "whore" to be homophones. This is one of many small things put forward as evidence for the idea that Shakespeare's dialect of Early Modern English most closely resembled the northern dialects of Modern English (in which "hour" and "whore" still aren't homophones, but are closer to being so than in BBC English) — doubtless quite a shock for generations of RP-speaking Shakespearean actors. Probably the best modern guess at what Shakespeare's dialect sounded like can be found here.
In King Lear Edmund's line "Yours in the ranks of death!" is actually a Elizabethan era euphemism or pun for an orgasm or sex in general. "Die" was a common English euphemism for "orgasm" well into the 18th century, probably stemming from the French euphemism la petite mort, "the little death." Shakespeare loved the phrase "I die in your lap" - he uses it in Hamlet and in Much Ado About Nothing, where Benedick tells Beatrice he "will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy sight." Also in the same play, Benedick says he was told Beatrice was "sick for him" (i.e. in love with him), leading Beatrice to reply that she was told Benedick was "well nigh dead for her."
Juliet's impassioned speech to her mother in Romeo and Juliet, in which she uses many double meanings that can be taken to mean she hates Romeo (the way her mother takes it) but could also be taken to mean she's in love with him. In one part, Juliet states that her dearest desire is to "behold Romeo dead." She gives the speech after they're married. What do you think Juliet's really saying she wants in that speech?
Shakespeare used the phrase "too much of a good thing" as a Double Entendre in As You Like It. The original context was as follows:
Rosalind: Are you not good? Orlando: I hope so. Rosalind: Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?
One example of a word losing its dirtier meaning over time is the title of Shakespeare's play Much Ado About Nothing. In Shakespeare's time, "thing" being a euphemism for a man's primary naughty bit, "nothing" or "no-thing" was also a euphemism for a woman's naughty bits. This gave the title three different yet equally appropriate meanings, as the main conflict over the play revolves around the false implication of Hero losing her virginity to another man while engaged to Claudio. Therefore it is "Much Ado about Nothing" as nothing was really going on, "Much Ado about Noting" as it's concerned with the views the characters have of each others' moral fiber (how they "note" each other), and "Much Ado about Nothing" as it was concerned with Hero's own naughty bits/her virginity. Sadly this clever wordplay is lost on many modern readers and the first interpretation is all they are aware of, especially in this modern time where a woman losing her virginity before marriage is all too common and not a reason to prevent a wedding.
"Nothing" also appears in Hamlet:
Hamlet: That's a fair thought to lie between a maid's legs. Ophelia: What is, my lord? Hamlet: Nothing.
And of course Mercutio and his "queen Mab" monologue in Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo interrupts mid-sentence:
Romeo: You speak of nothing.
Much Ado also involves many jokes based on "wit" being a slang term for "dick" at the time.
Don Pedro: I said that thou hadst a great wit. Yay, said she, a great gross one. Nay, say I, a fine wit. Yay, said she, a fine little one. Nay, said I, a good wit. Just, said she, it hurts nobody.
There's also this exchange:
Claudio: Wilt thou use thy wit? Benedick: It is in my scabbard. Shall I draw it? [Here referring to wit as a slang term for fencing skill] Don Pedro, that filthy man: Dost thou wear thy wit by thy side?
There is a pretty hilarious scene in "Romeo and Juliet" where Romeo and Mercutio match wits leading to gems such as "O here's a wit of cheveril, that stretches from an inch to an ell broad!"
Similarly, whenever the word "quaint" occurs in William Shakespeare or Chaucer... it means the same as "nothing", or "wit", or "ring." Terry Pratchett was right.
Petruchio: Come, come, you wasp; i' faith, you are too angry. Katherina: If I be waspish, best beware my sting. Petruchio: My remedy is then, to pluck it out. Katherina: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies. Petruchio: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail. Katherina: In his tongue. Petruchio: Whose tongue? Katherina: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell. Petruchio: What, with my tongue in your tail?
That's even worse than is implied so far! Kissing ass has a certain set of meanings in the modern era, but in those days it was the sign of a witch or warlock's devotion to and service to the Devil. In other words, Petruchio was literally demonizing her.
Almost every argument Kate and Petruchio have would fit this. There's also this:
Katherina: Asses were made to bear, and so will you. Petruchio: Women were made to bear, and so will you!
This would, of course, be referring to women having ("bearing") children, and being expected to hold ("bear") her husband's weight during sex.
The title quote — at the time Hamlet was written, "nunnery" was a euphemism for "brothel".
And another one, from Hamlet's conversation with Polonius—in the same conversation in which he makes reference to Jephthah, he calls Polonius a "fishmonger"—a euphemism for a "pimp", referring to a similarity in scent between fish and female genitalia. Which is, of course, a clue that Hamlet already suspects Polonius of using his own daughter to get to Hamlet.
Several of Shakespeare's sonnets make extensive use of the word "will" which, aside from conveniently being the poet's name, meant both "penis" and "sexual appetite."
Scholar: "It's all in my new book on Shakespeare, entitled 'I Love My Willy" - Which I'd like to whip out for you right now.
Similarly, any Shakespearean reference to "stones" is likely to be an anatomical Double Entendre.
An interesting question arises: Has this usage returned (in the 19th century through today) or did it always remain current? This usage also appears in the King James Bible, so at least the usage has been generally available, if not actually used, the whole time.
According to a certain annotated copy of Twelfth Night, the following conversation is actually about having sex with prostitutes:
Sir Andrew: I'll stay a month longer. I am a fellow o' the strangest mind i' the world; I delight in masques and revels sometimes altogether. Sir Toby: Art thou good at these kickshawses, knight? Sir Andrew: As any man in Illyria, whatsoever he be, under the degree of my betters; and yet I will not compare with an old man. Sir Toby: What is thy excellence in a galliard, knight? Sir Andrew: Faith, I can cut a caper. Sir Toby: And I can cut the mutton to't. Sir Andrew: And I think I have the back-trick simply as strong as any man in Illyria.
More glaringly, when Malvolio reads the fake letter supposedly from Olivia, he notes her handwriting by her "C"s, her "U"s, and her "T"s, from which she makes her great "P"s. Need it be mentioned that "cut" was old-timey slang for a woman's private parts?
The awful puns in Henry V referred to above include the following:
Katherine: ... Coment appelle vous les pied et de roba?
Alice: Le Foot, Madame, et le Count.
Katherine:. Le Foot, et le Count! O Seignieur Dieu, il sont le mots de son mauvais corruptible, grosse, et impudique, et non pour le dames de honeur d'user: je ne voudray pronouncer ce mots devant le seigneurs de France, pour toute le monde! Fo! Le Foot et le Count!
Or in translation from Shakespeare's mangled Elizabethan French:
Katherine: ... How do you say, le pied and la robe?
Alice: The Foot, my lady, and the Gown.
Katherine:. The Foot and the Gown! O Lord God, these are words of a wicked, corruptible, gross, and immodest sound, and not for ladies of honour to use! I should not want to pronounce these words before the lords of France for all the world! Fie! The Foot and the Gown!
The wordplay is on the French words foutre ("fuck" or "jizz") and con ("cunt").
Again in Romeo and Juliet, we have the opening scene where a Capulet man expresses his desire to fight the Montagues and "cut off the heads" of their maids—"maidenhead" being an old term for a woman's hymen/virginity. This is lampshaded by a second man asking "The heads of the maids, or their maidenheads?" to which the first replies "Ah, 'tis all one."
Similarly, in the same scene he mentions he would "take to the wall any Man or Maid of Montague". "Take to the wall" is a reference to the fact in fancy Italian cities of the time (such as Verona) families would have their toilets on the second floor of their homes, set up in such a way that their contents would dump down and drain into a trench in the center of the street. In essence, the Capulet man is saying he'd want to shove the Montagues under a toilet and give them an excrement shower - or doing something different with the maidens.
In Henry IV there is a whole speech full of whore jokes at the beginning of the second scene in the first act.
Prince:: Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of sack and minutes capons and clocks the tongues of bawdsnote pimps and dials the signs of leaping-housesnote brothels and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wenchnote in this context, prostitute in flame-coloured taffetanote the color of fabric often worn by whores, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day.
And then there are some lines in Shakespeare the meaning of which is so obscure that even the world's foremost experts couldn't tell you what the hell they even mean. King Lear's baffling exclamation about "a good block", for example, seems to mean nothing at all as far as most editors can reckon. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that Shakespeare never published definitive editions of his own works, and the versions that exist today are often incomplete, damaged, or suffered under over-zealous early editors.
In The Bible, the phrase "And Adam knew his wife" sounds innocent enough, until you learn that in Hebrew, there are two words for "know": one applies to people, and the other applies to inanimate objects. If you use the second to apply to a person, it becomes a euphemism for sex. And nowyou know. To be fair, the meaning is rather obvious — the next few words are, "and she conceived a son". This one seems to have come full circle, as "knew her in the Biblical sense" has entered the popular lexicon. Still, some translations render such pages into the contemporary English phrases for clarity. This is also the basis of the legal term "carnal knowledge".
"In the Biblical sense" is an idiom in modern day Hebrew. Used also in Sister Act.
The Biblical sense of "know" appears in the play The Crucible. One of the most dramatic lines is this:
John Proctor: I have...known...Abigail Williams.
The song "If It Isn't Her" by Ani Difranco has the lyrics: "She says, 'Do I Know You'. I say, 'Well not biblically.'"
In an obscure Radio 4 comedy featuring Hugh Grant, "The Crusader Chronicles", there was a marvelous exchange, as depicted here:
"Bishop?" "Cadworthy! I was just, ummm, taking your wife over the scriptures..." "Very energetic of you, old boy..." "I don't mean in the biblical sense! No, wait a minute, I do mean in the biblical sense..."
Angry Mob:Lot - where are the men who came to see you tonight? Send them out so that we may know them (sexually).
Chances are that Chick felt the need for that hilarious aside because he heard theories that the crimes of the mob weren't necessarily homosexuality and he wanted everyone to be damned sure that it was. Yeah.
Never mind that Sodom's crimes were a) rape, not sex, and b) violating the laws of hospitality, per Ezekiel 16:49 and several other places....
One of Garth Ennis' war stories has a captured Nazi Nobleman tell a British soldier he might have known his father at Eton. "If you mean in the biblical sense, I believe you. Father's proclivities never cease to amaze me."
And getting back to Shakespeare's Hamlet, though he probably didn't mean it that way, considering the scene:
Hamlet holding a skull: Alas, poor Yorick... I knew him, Horatio.
More on the Bible. A few examples:
Genesis 24:9, Abraham's servant swears by holding Abraham's package: "And the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master, and sware to him concerning that matter." Swearing a promise on your father's genitals (yes, you were expected to cup his family jewels) was considered the most sacred of oaths in Jewish society, and in this case Abraham was a father figure to his servant.
Don't forget the Latin word testicula, which means little witness.
In 2 Kings, King Solomon's son responded to requests for lower taxes with "My father's thigh was smaller than my smallest finger." Yeah.
Ezekiel 16:25, Ezekiel compares Jerusalem with a prostitute who spreads eagle to every man who walks by: "thou hast opened thy feet to every one that ped by, and multiplied thy whoredoms." In Biblical Hebrew, the same word is used for "feet" and "legs". That pretty much preserves the euphemism in modern language! Among popular Protestant translations, the NASB renders this "spread your legs," while the NIV and RSV have "offering your body" and "yourself," respectively. The Catholic NAB has "spreading your legs," and the Jerusalem Bible has "give your body" . . . "to every comer."
Some Biblical pages have been sanitized for our protection by translators. One example is in 1 Samuel 20:41: the King James version is (greeting Jonathan) "David arose out of the place...and fell on his face to the ground, and bowed himself three times; and they kissed one another, and wept one with another, until David exceeded.". Conservative Christian commentators claim that "exceeded" means that he became overly emotional, but at least one rabbi has claimed that in the original Hebrew, the last two words are really "David enlarged" - in other words, "David had an erection."
The word "foot" in Biblical usage is often an euphemism for "penis." In 2 Samuel 11:8, David's exhortation to Uriah to "Go down to thy house, and wash thy feet" is meant to get him to have sex with his wife, whom David has just gotten pregnant. (It didn't work, so they went with Plan B.)
When Zipporah circumcises her and Moses' son and touches the father's "foot" with the foreskin, this probably also means penis.
Thus the Description of the Seraphim, whose final set of wings shield their "feet," was actually referring to them shielding their genitals out of modesty. Of course, considering that angels aren't supposed to have genitals raises interesting questions...
In 1 Samuel, Saul goes into a cave to "cover his feet", here meaning "go to the bathroom."
The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs, depending on your translation) consists entirely of explicit love poetry. Taste of my garden, indeed.
"I sat down in his shadow [i.e., sat down while he was standing up]...and his fruit was sweet to my taste." Goodnight everybody!
"My beloved put his hand by the hole [of the door] and my bowels were moved for him." That has to actually mean more than it lets on. note No, the speaker didn't actually soil herself- "Bowels" was basically Hebrew for "heart." At the same time... he has his hands inside her 'hole' and her insides 'moved'.
In Carl Barks' Back to the Klondike, Scrooge McDuck describes Glittering Goldie as "the only live one I ever knew." Given his reclusive, asocial attitude towards life, and disdain for everything except money up to that point, it's entirely possible (indeed, in context, there's no other logical interpretation) that he means this in the above-mentioned clinical sense of "know." This, along with a somewhat more overt gag, is an epic case of Getting Crap Past the Radar; when questioned by observant fans at the exact nature of Scrooge and Goldie's relationship, Barks tactfully insisted it wasn't something his publishers would want to get into.
Ever wonder why Buford Tannen kept referring to Marty as "dude" in Back To The Future: Part III? During that time period, "dude" basically meant City Mouse (hence, a "dude ranch" is a ranch for "dudes", i.e. tourists). Considering Marty is from The Eighties, it's odd that he doesn't lampshade how that word changed.
For the record, "dude" had acquired its current meaning, at least among hipsters, by the 1960s. The 1969 movie Easy Riderlampshades this.
Speaking of Back To The Future, there's also this (non-sexual) exchange from the first movie that's puzzling to modern audiences. (Pepsi Free has long since been discontinued, so the fifties waiter's interpretation becomes younger viewers' as well. As for Tab, it still exists but is far less common — and many younger viewers might only know it from Homestuck.)
Marty: All right, give me a Tab.
Waiter: Tab? I can't give you a tab unless you order something.
Marty: Okay then, give me a Pepsi Free.
Waiter: You want a Pepsi, pal, you're gonna pay for it!
Marty: ...just give me something without any sugar.
Towards the end of Mary Poppins, the joke where Constable Jones tells his superior to "go fly a kite", then quickly backpedaling with "No, sir, I didn't mean YOU personally...", is often lost on modern audiences. The phrase was once used as a family-friendly version of "Go fuck yourself," but is almost never used this way today.
Lampshaded in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Jack first met his New Old Flame love interest Angelica in a convent, just as she was about to take her vows. Years later, when they meet again, she asks why he was even in a convent at all. He admits to honestly mistaking it for a brothel.
One not-so-Innocent Innuendo related to past language is in John Donne's poem "The Flea". His conceit of the flea sucking becomes more indecent when you realize that the long "s" (ſ) resembled an "f".
The poem's entire plot is a guy trying to get his girlfriend to sleep with him and using a flea as a clumsy metaphor. As he was drawing inspiration from a long line of other poems using fleas as dirty enablers of illicit coupling going back at least as far as Ovid, this example is Older Than Feudalism.
In Chaucer's Middle English, the word "queynte" could mean "quaint", "intelligent", or... well... you know... that. Chaucer uses this pun extensively throughout the Canterbury Tales, especially in the Miller's Tale.
In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the word "sass" means (1) know, (2) be aware of, (3) meet, (4) have sex withnote As in, "Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There's a frood who really knows where his towel is!". Knowing Douglas Adams this is undoubtedly a reference to any or all of the above.
ThisXKCD comic has an example of the "incomprehensible" variety.
Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore had a very edgy name at the time—"ruddy" and "gore" are two synonyms for "bloody", a cussword that was further beyond the bounds of polite society in those days. When confronted with this, Gilbert responded:
That would be like saying 'I admire your ruddy countenance' — which I do— means the same thing as 'I like your bloody cheek' — which I don't.
The play I Hate Hamlet creates a joke of this quote when Andrew uses Hamlet's speech and the abuse of Ophelia to seduce his girlfriend Dierdre, who imagines herself a Shakespearean heroine.
Other Word Shifts
The sword in the constellation Orion, under his belt? "Sword" means something else.
Any time the word "horns" shows up in Elizabethan English (particularly in The Merry Wives of Windsor), it's usually a reference to adultery. To cheat on your husband was to make him a "cuckold," a reference to cuckoos, which lay eggs in other birds' nests to raise. A cuckolded man is said to have cuckold's horns, which are actually a reference to stags, who can lose their mate if they are defeated by another male. If a man is said to have horns, it means his wife is sleeping around.
This was alluded to in a scene in Hamlet, in which Hamlet wigs out on Ophelia and accuses her of a number of various nasty, sexual things. One of those things was "Men know what monsters you make of us!", which of course refers to the cuckold's horns.
The prank of holding two fingers behind someone's head as their picture is being taken is a reference to cuckold's horns. Americans know the prank as "bunny ears," but in other cultures it means your wife is cheating on you.
Before The Eighties, "dork" was a slang term for "penis". Today its alternate meaning, "foolish or ridiculous" is much more common.
There seems to be a certain oblivion to alternate meanings of dork. Otherwise, The Dork Diaries, books about a middle school girl would have Unfortunate Implications.
Sysop: "What??? You want to censor the word 'dork'? Why whatever for?" Lord Elf: "Because it means whale penis, duh!" Sysop: "But neither the word 'penis' nor 'whale' is censored in your room!"
It meant this up until '87, if The Monster Squad is anything to be trusted. "Of course Wolf Man wore pants. It was the Forties! Otherwise you'd see his... you know. Wolfdork." And who could forget "We were wondering if you had ever... um... to what extent you had... been dorked."
The Gorgo episode of MST3K featured a whole running gag on a character named "Dorkin."
And a line in The Sandman: A Game of You, originally published in 1991:
Barbie: Guys think with their dorks.
And a line in Mallrats, Brodie says, "What about The Thing's dork? Is it like the rest of him?"
Sixteen Candles, when the brother says in regard to Long Duck Dong, "At least you don't have to sleep under a guy named after a duck's dork!"
Gary Larson was forced to remove the word "dork" from one of his The Far Side cartoons when his editor informed him that it meant "penis." He'd never heard of that meaning and looked it up in a slang dictionary to confirm it.
In a similar vein, many people who use the Yiddish word "schmuck" have no idea what it means either. (Which really messes up the joke about the guy who rides a camel across town to impress the ladies, "Officer, it was a male camel. I know because I heard all of these people saying 'Hey, look at the schmuck on the camel!'")
The meaning of the word "schmuck", believe it or not, was a key point in one of Lenny Bruce's obscenity trials. The prosecution asserted that Lenny was using it to mean "penis". Lenny, meanwhile, had references to dictionaries of Yiddish slang which gave its primary meaning as "fool". These days, "schmuck" has mostly moved into the "fool" meaning. For the dual fool/penis connotation, "putz" is the term more often used. Nonetheless, it's considered a very offensive word by Yiddish speakers, and many Jewish adults, who don't speak much Yiddish, but whose parents did, still remember being punished for saying it. It made seeing the word on a marquee, when Dinner for Schmucks was in theaters quite jarring.
In many languages the word for the mathematical operation opposite to differentiation is a variation of "integral", but not in Polish, where it's been translated to a word stemming from the root of "making something whole", as "integrating" is. Now, since it's an archaism for "virgin", thousands of students each year have to endure terrible, terrible jokes about "integrals" being difficult to find, etc.
Which is similar to the reaction of most English-speaking students in their first foreign-language class when they first learn about conjugating verbs.
It referred to the Camp Gay favorites of certaincourtiers (and even of the king sometimes) called "mignons", which today means "cute". Go figure.
The word 'courtesan' is also a fine example. At one time, it was simply the word that applied to women who had a position at Court, just as 'courtier' applies to men. Now...
The word "gunsel", in a way. Back in the day, it meant either a young boy kept for sexual purposes, or the passive partner in anal intercourse. Then writers like Dashiell Hammett began to slide the word into their stories knowing the real meaning, but relying on their editor to not know the word, and assume it had something to do with guns. These days, a gun-wielding hoodlum is a valid alternate meaning, and has appeared in that context on such places as the HBO website, talking about the character of Brother Mouzone from The Wire. (Unless there's something we don't know about Brother...)
Punk has undergone a remarkable semantic shift over the past century or so. It first appeared sometime around The Gay Nineties, and was slang for....well, for a concept quite similar to that covered by gunsel. Flash forward ten and a half decades later, and the primary meaning of punk is not only something non-sexual, but something that can be interpreted as a compliment! Well, depending on whether or not you happen to be in prison, that is.
The word is used in Shakespeare'sMeasure for Measure to mean a female prostitute. (Definitely female - one character knocks her up and is forced to marry her, despite his protestations that "marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping and hanging.")
Frigging, which means rubbing, at a time had all the sexual connotations of that other F word.
"Orchids" is an archaic term for testicles - archaic as in Aristotle would use it. It's survived somewhat to this day when referring medically to testicular maladies (for instance, a guy with three bad boys is a polyorchid; an orchidectomy is having one removed), but to most people orchids are simply flowers.
And that casts new light on the White Stripes song, Blue Orchid. Knowing them, it was probably intentional.
And interestingly, one can grind up the roots of some species and boil the resulting flour in water to produce a drink with the color and consistencynote Although not flavor of semen. The drink, known as salep (from its Turkish name), is understandably considered an aphrodisiac and a restorer of virility.
The Irish Folk SongThe Holy Ground sounds like a love song nowadays, with the narrator singing about the sailors on his ship returning to the eponymous Holy Ground to see the girls they love. This holds until you realize that in the 18th century the section of the port town of Cobh known as the Holy Ground was actually the Red Light District.
Nursery Rhymes and traditional lullabyes can be rife with this, since the words haven't changed much in at least a few hundred years.
When "Lucy Locket lost her pocket", a "pocket" was a detachable pouch women wore under their skirts and over their petticoats. Such a pocket is visible in this painting◊.
For anyone younger than 50, the word funky definitely makes this list. You probably grew up hearing it used in popular songs in expressions like "Get down! Get funky!" - and assumed the word simply meant "cool." But it originally referred to the smell of a woman's vagina.
If still has that connotation, but more generalized when referring to smell.
...Wait, but what does "farthingale" mean when it's not an innuendo?