Mind you, the Elizabethans had so many words for the female genitals that it is quite hard to speak a sentence of modern English without inadvertently mentioning at least three of them.
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.
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.
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
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- 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.
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
- In other words, "You were originally supposed to be a woman, but Mother Nature fell in love with you and defeated me by giving you a penis, [which doesn't help me at all/where you should have had a vagina]." Not that that probably stopped him.
- 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:
: 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.
- Yet another from dirty old Shakespeare found in The Taming of the Shrew:
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?
- 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."
- 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.
- 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
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
- 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 and dials the signs of leaping-housesnote and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wenchnote in flame-coloured taffetanote , 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 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.
- Bizarrely, and probably unintentionally, used in 1941. In a deleted scene, Sgt. Tree says he's going to "ream" Sitarski for vanishing during tank maintenance. The common usage of 'ream', to mean 'rebuke', didn't come into American vernacular until 1950. In 1941, however, 'ream' was just coming into usage as a vulgar slang term for anal sex.
- 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 Rider lampshades 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.
- The Monk in The Canterbury Tales doesn't give a "Pulled Hen" about the scriptures.
- 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 . Knowing Douglas Adams this is undoubtedly a reference to any or all of the above.
- Tristram Shandy has a lot of fun with the fact that, at the time it was written, the word "hobby-horse" could mean either "obsession" or "prostitute".
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.
- Before The Eighties, "dork" was a slang term for "penis". Today its alternate meaning, "foolish or ridiculous" is much more common.
- 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.
- Incidentally, Dinner for Schmucks was a remake of the French movie Le Dīner des cons; con itself was once an obscene word meaning "cunt" but is now a very mild expression meaning "stupid" or "an idiot," with the former meaning next to forgotten. Making "schmucks" a beautifully analogous translation.
- Came up by accident in a 1980 Peanuts storyline, where Lucy teaches Charlie Brown an (initially) unhittable pitch called the "Schmuckle Ball". The choice of name is a portmanteau of "schmush" (Schultz's spelling) and "knuckle", but it's rather like singing the "Name Game" song with "Chuck"...
- 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.
- Minion used to indicate a much more specific kind of service...
- It referred to the Camp Gay favorites of certain courtiers (and even of the king sometimes) called "mignons", which today means "cute". Go figure.
- 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...)
- This cartoon◊ refers to a play on words involving an antiquated use of the word "corporation" to mean "big belly."
- 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's Measure 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.
- It's worse than just that. The word originally meant 'testicle'; the flowers got the name because, well, somebody thought they (well, their roots◊) looked like...orchids.
- 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 of semen. The drink, known as salep (from its Turkish name), is understandably considered an aphrodisiac and a restorer of virility.
- There's a certain irony here since Georgia O'Keeffe, in her paintings of orchids, emphasizes their— shall we say— feminine qualities.
- The Irish Folk Song The 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