The double meanings of English

The hidden language of English

​A language evolves in response to the needs if it’s people and the conventions of society and the English language is no exception.

A good example of this is how and why English has so many words, phrasal verbs and expressions that have a sexual connotation. This is something students ask me about all the time, especially in C1 and C2.

For example there are many many phrasal verbs that have a sexual meaning, by simply changing the preposition or adding another we can completely alter meaning.

Go down – to reduce
Go down on – to perform oral sex
Jack (something) in – to stop an activity
Jack off – to masturbate
Touch (something) up – to reapply makeup or paint
Touch (someone) – to touch someone in a sexual way
Get on with (someone) – have a good relationship
Get it on with (someone) – to have sex

The English obsession with sex

So why exactly does the English Language contain so many references to sex?

During the long reign of queen Victoria sex became taboo – on the surface. In reality it was a very promiscuous era with rampant prostitution. But to be acceptable in society you had to appear to be decent, wholesome, prim and proper, moral and chaste. Society wore a mask. It had less to do with religion than with social class and breeding and the need for higher classes to distance themselves from the lower classes who were believed to be morally and intellectually inferior. This mode of thinking was perpetuated and spread with fervor throughout the Colonies of the British Empire.

This continued into the 1920’s when society began to change and become more liberal, thanks in part to the First World War and the sudden sense of liberation felt at its close. Women from the higher classes who had previously been forced to wear tight fitting corsets and follow social norms, had also discovered a new sense of power and freedom after working in munitions factories and found themselves working cheek by jowl with lower class working girls. This is when the double entendre became normal and we would say one thing but actually mean another, in relation to our sexuality and behaviour. Slowly the language began to change, helped by playwrights like Noel coward.

This play on words finally grew into a huge form of entertainment in the 1970’s with people like Benny Hill and the Carry On films. British television was full of this type of comedy and in a way that wasn’t permitted on American television, which was and still is actually quite reserved, especially about sex.  An entire generation of British kids were raised on these types of programme and film, and so the sexual double entendre became as much a part of our social fabric as fish and chips or Big Ben.

To really understand what this type of humour is I recommend looking for Carry On movies on YouTube, any will be packed chock full of innuendo, though perhaps Carry On Cleo will illustrate it more clearly. These films remain firm British favourites with the older generation and will hopefully continue to be so.

Suitable for kids?

This is really an irrelevant question when talking about innuendo as kids generally don’t see the connection between an innocent word, for example pear (the fruit) and a woman in a tight fitting dress with a large bossom (chest) holding the fruit, and the words ‘Nice pear’ spoken by a man – to a child it refers to the fruit, to an adult it refers to the woman’s bossom, chest or breasts. Whether this is morally acceptable in today’s world is another question and the art of innuendo is dying out..