To Wit: An E-zine On How To Be a Wit

This is an E-zine from Thomas Christopher on how to be witty.


I'm offering T-shirts and other self-expression products designed using the techniques discussed here. I've set up an online "store" at I expect to use many of the designs as examples in this e-zine.

At $2 trillion, the creative economy -- design, discovery, and invention -- is approaching 50% of the US economy. The creative class, the workers in the creative economy, comprise about 30% of the US workforce. Wit is not a luxury.

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Double Entendre

A double entendre uses a word in one sense and then switches its meaning for comic effect, or simply establishes a context in which the word will have one interpretation and then uses it in another sense. Usually one of the meanings is risqué, and many of the examples here will be too, so if you are uncomfortable with that, you should probably stop reading now. (Rhetorically, double entendre uses antanaclasis, reusing the same word or sound, but changing the meaning. A double entendre may be considered a kind of a pun.)

Mountains and alcohol: the higher you are, the higher you get.

When one of the meanings is risqué, you make that one the punch line. Here are three examples:

Dorothy Parker said, “If all the young women from all the seven sisters academies were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”

If you consider a reasonable mammal like the Elk, once a year the females go into heat, the males start rutting, and if a male can battle past the other males and get to a female, she never has a headache, but with humans, the females never go into heat, the males are always rutting, and the females find that a major headache. [A double antithesis and a double entendre.]

What did Bill Gates’ wife learn to here horror on their wedding night? Where he got the name “Micro soft.”

To find a double entendre, the question you must always ask yourself is, “How can I misunderstand this?”

How to construct a basic double entendre

The basic double entendre uses a word in one sense and then switches its meaning for comic effect. Here is how you do it:

Start with a list of concept words, that is, words that are relevant to the idea you are talking about.

Mark the words in your list that have multiple, relevant meanings.

For each of these words, construct jokes of the form: Setup: lead people to expect one meaning. Punch line: switch to the other meaning.

I hate alcohol. I can’t stand drinking—I keep falling down.

Revise with two things in mind: making sure the set up is long enough to implant the expectation firmly in the listeners’ minds, and make sure the switch in meaning comes at the very end, or as close to the end as syntactically possible.

Context-setup double entendre

To set up a double entendre by context, proceed as in the basic double entendre, but don’t use the word in the setup. Merely create a context in which the word will be interpreted one way. Its use in the punch line will still create a jarring double meaning.

“A politician is asked to run, wants to sit, and is expected to lie.”

The double entendre comes from the group membership of run, sit, and lie. The quote comes from Churchill, though he said “stand” rather than “run.”

In the land of pencils, Number 2 is Number One.

Cliché-setup double entendre

A cliché is a phrase so commonly used or so well known that people will instantly recognize it. You can use a cliché to set up the double entendre.

Start with a list of concept words. Where you can, find clichés using those words with a meaning not relevant to your topic. Form jokes as follows: Setup: use the cliché in the usual sense. Lead the audience along with the conventional meaning. Punch line: say something that switches the meaning to one relevant to what you are talking about.

Mae West: “When given a choice between two evils, I typically choose the one I haven’t tried yet.”

You take the high road and I’ll take the low road, and I’ll get elected before you.

For practice, you can just start with some clichés. Go through each of the clichés asking, “What else could this word mean?” Mark the clichés and words with multiple meanings. Form the joke the same way, using the cliché to set up the joke and the different meaning in the punch line. You can then save these to use when you find a context in which they are relevant. Using wordplay where it doesn’t contribute to some purpose just tries people’s patience.

Cliché-punch-line double entendre

You can also end the joke with the cliché. Find the clichés for your concept words as in the Cliché setup double entendre. Construct the jokes. Set up: lead them to expect one meaning by creating a context where they would normally take that meaning. Punch line: use the word in a cliché where it has a different meaning.

I know my computer loves me; it’s always going down.

“Spiritual”—an adjective meaning “of no worldly value.”

Dangling-modifier double entendre

You can get the same effect as shifting the meaning of a word by shifting the noun or verb a phrase modifies. You can work with a sentence, or simply a phrase that almost always has one meaning, but needn’t have.

I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know. --Groucho Marx.

“So to speak.”

When somebody says something that could be reinterpreted as risqué, murmur “So to speak,” which will call everybody’s attention to it without saying anything untoward yourself.

Double entendre on multiple opposites

You can get double entendres from words that have more than one opposite, for example

“Turn left here.”

“Right here?”

“No left.”

“I mean, ‘Left here?’”


It is not hard to understand the process of constructing double entendres, but it can take the eye of an editor to find the words with double meanings, and clichés, where you wish to use them, are hard to remember.

But double entendres can be a delight, whether using the word twice, or set up from context, or using a cliché or any other way. The fact that they are so often risqué should not be used against them. Given the blunt and crude sexual language one encounters these days, it’s pleasant to find some subtlety and wit in the area.

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Thomas Christopher, Ph.D.: Seminars, Speeches, Consulting
1140 Portland Place #205, Boulder CO 80304, 303-709-5659,
Books through Prentice Hall PTR, albeit not related to wit: High-Performance Java Platform Computing, ISBN: 0130161640, Web Programming in Python, ISBN: 0-13-041065-9, Python Programming Patterns, ISBN: 0-13-040956-1