Get your hands off my double entendres! is the smutty pun now under attack culture the guardian electricity shock in the body

The double entendre is a robust cultural fixture, having endured since at least the 10th century. (The Exeter Book, circa AD990, includes several phallic-oriented riddles. What is “stiff and hard” and “hangs by the thigh of a man”? A key, of course.) It allows us, in our squeamishness, to talk about sex at one remove, to approach the flame without singeing our extremities. At its cleverest, it provides opportunities for linguistic inventiveness and dexterity. It is there in several decades of Carry On films, more than 100 years of music-hall and thousands of saucy seaside postcards by the much-prosecuted, frequently banned, George Orwell-approved Donald McGill.

It is there when a corporal tells Blackadder as he bravely faces the firing squad: “I must say, Captain, I’ve got to admire your balls.” “Perhaps later,” comes the reply. And it has penetrated popular music from Chuck Berry’s ding-a-ling to Kelis’s milkshake. Though if it’s parochial British innuendo we’re talking about, there is no beating East 17’s quaint spin on Prince-style seduction: “Yeah, I’ll butter the toast / If you lick the knife.”

The question now, though, is whether this tradition can survive in the necessarily sensitive climate of #MeToo. An early indication that its days could be numbered came in Staffordshire recently, when a butcher called Pete Lymer was reportedly ordered to remove signs advertising “big-breasted birds”, a “big fresh cock” and the chance to “have your rump tenderised before you leave”. Arguably more offensive was his flagrant use of the greengrocer’s apostrophe (“ladie’s”, “chicken’s”), though police appear unwilling to take action over that.

There is also the problem that not all his smut was intelligible. An offer of a “horny sausage” surely fails to qualify even as a single entendre. Can a penis itself be horny, independent of its owner? Logic would suggest not. And who would buy a sausage that had sprouted horns anyway?

But the point stands. In a society only now beginning to acknowledge a widespread culture of male sexual entitlement, can smut really continue to be considered harmless? “I wonder if we’re not becoming too sensitive about it,” says Stephen Bailey, a gay Mancunian comic whose own use of double entendres is restricted to the title of his current standup show, Can’t Think Straight.

“It seems completely different to #MeToo, which is about men in positions of power sexually abusing their victims. Where is the abuse of power in a butcher’s blackboard? He’s using the correct terminology. It’s only our filthy brains that have made ‘cock’ a dirty word. And there’s a big difference between him putting out a sign about ‘big breasts’ and him making lewd remarks at a woman or rubbing his thighs.”

If the double entendre is endangered, it is news to Simon Thorp, who has been writing for Viz magazine since 1985. Among his best-known creations is the comic strip Finbarr Saunders and His Double Entendres, the everyday story of a boy alert to the sexual meaning in the most innocent exchange, while remaining largely oblivious to actual sex between his mother and Mr Gimlet that is occurring right under his nose.

“I can’t remember what inspired me,” Thorp says. “I’d probably just watched a Carry On or something. I’ve always been endlessly impressed by how they squeeze all those double entendres in. When Finbarr started out, it was usually things like, ‘Ooh, I’ve got a big one.’ Single entendres, really. You can’t keep doing that for ever, so I started making them ruder and more convoluted. Now a character will spend several frames building the setup to one. I see how long I can keep it up.”

A cursory glance at recent examples bears this out. Four panels in one strip alone are devoted to setting up a payoff involving Fanny Cradock, King Kong and a bowl of Eton mess. In another, Mr Gimlet’s visit to a pet shop inspires tales of horse-riding (“On a recent holiday in Morocco, I paid £10 for the privilege of being tossed off by a frisky young Arab”) and hedgehog care (“I had to use an old sock to wipe the sticky gunk out of my hog’s eye”). But the strip stops just short of an Are You Being Served? homage. Asked if his wife has ever owned a particularly hirsute cat, Mr Gimlet answers anti climactically: “Not really, no.”

But then if a US presidential candidate can talk shamelessly about grabbing women’s genitals and still end up in the White House, perhaps there is no place in the world any more for allusions to Mrs Slocombe’s pussy. (Coincidentally, a widely panned revival of Are You Being Served? appeared a month after Donald Trump was elected.) For the double entendre to persist, there needs to be a sense it is using code to say the unsayable. Without some social etiquette and politeness in place, we lose the comic thrill when they are breached. As the category of the taboo shrinks, the need for innuendo has shrivelled up along with it.

At its most effective, it can be a tool for the powerless. Mainstream audiences in the mid-1960s chortled at examples of Polari, the coded gay language of Julian and Sandy ( Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, respectively) on the radio show Round the Horne. When the couple claimed to be lawyers, and to have “a criminal practice that takes up much of our time”, listeners knew exactly which practice they were referring to: homosexuality had yet to be decriminalised.

For Bailey, innuendo was often the only way to hear gay references in comedy when he was growing up. “The stuff that Lily Savage and Julian Clary got away with! It wouldn’t be allowed now. But double entendres were always a good way of getting your sexy material on TV without upsetting anyone.” Clary remains a master of the form. His New Statesman columns from 10 years ago were sticky linguistic labyrinths where every turn brought the reader slap-bang into another bodily fluid or impressive engorgement.

“I have a Virginia creeper shooting up my kitchen garden wall and I have similar hopes for a frisky young hod-carrier called Brett,” he wrote in one column. Remarking on the reactions of his friends to all the fetching labourers working in his garden, he continued: “There are positive cat fights over who should mince outside with a tray of tea and ask, ‘Who could manage a chocolate finger?’”

As a language to describe acts and desires that polite society deems inexpressible, innuendo can be a vital way of keeping things visible. “Sometimes I think we’ve regressed,” says Bailey. “Lily Savage was a gay man, a drag queen, doing sexual material, talking about ‘gobbling’ – and mainstream audiences loved it. The presenters of Loose Women can sit around discussing their sex lives and yet when I’ve done TV, I’ve had people behind the scenes say, ‘Can you do your working-class material rather than your gay material?’”

There may be discomfort today about watching Carry On films, but the lecherous males smacking their lips and making “phwoar” noises in those comedies are hardly being held up as idealised specimens of masculinity. “Look at the men in those films,” says Thorp. “Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Williams. Even Sid James never gets any. That sums up the attitude toward sex in the Carry Ons and in British humour in general. You might want it – but if it turns up, you run away.”