Recently, I asked users to provide modern-day equivalents of idioms and expressions that contained the words fancy and tickle. The question is titled Whatever tickles their fancy in the US?

I was pretty much convinced that the idiom was quintessentially British, and that few American speakers had heard of it, let alone used it in their everyday conversation. According to Google Books Ngram, I was very much mistaken, since the 1970s the idiom has become increasingly popular in the US (blue line) whilst the opposite is true in the UK.

enter image description here

Now for the fun part. Looking into its origin, I discovered that the idiom tickles your fancy (which basically means “what pleases you”) was originally (?) a double entendre. The term fancy was a euphemism for fanny which in BrEng is a vulgar expression for female genitals but in AmEng is another name for butt or buttocks.

In A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature By Gordon Williams, under the entry of fancy, it says

fancy It means vagina, with a pun on the sense of sexual desire (cf. the current ‘a little of what you fancy does you good’), in Thornley's Longus (1657) p.124, when Daphni's seductress ‘directed him to her Fancie, the place so long desired and sought’.

Under the entry of tickle, page 1389, it tells us

Merry-Thought (1731) I.27 records an ephemeral couplet of 1714: ‘Dear Doll is a Prude, And I tumbled her down; And I tickled her Fancy For half a Crown’. This quibbling phrase turns up in Maids Complaint (1684-6; Pepys Ballads IV.50), the maid enviously hearing “my dame Nancy declare how her Master did tickle her fancy With his dill doul; and in Unconstant Quaker (c.1690; Pepys Ballads V.241), where the Quaker maid was ‘left in the Lurch, after he had Tickl'd her Fancy’.

Unfortunately pages 1387 to 1388 are not available for viewing, so I have no way of knowing if the variant ‘Whatever takes your fancy’ was ever used in 17th or 18th century England.


  1. Was “tickle [one's] fancy” originally a double entendre expression?
  2. Where and when was it first used?
  3. Did Americans use this idiom as an innuendo? Are there any examples from 18th or mid-19th century American literature (i.e. 1700-1850) that support this? Instances of tickle [your] fancy will also count.
  4. Is there a term for an expression that used to be a double entendre but is now regarded as being "normal"?
  • 5
    In the appropriate context, it was a double entendre, and/or an innuendo. In the appropriate context, anything can be. As Tom Lehrer puts it, "When correctly viewed, everything is lewd." – John Lawler Sep 5 '15 at 18:08
  • 1
    Certainly the phrase "tickle your fancy" has been around (and used in the US in the presence of polite women and children) since the 50s, that I personally know of. And "fancy" has long been used as a verb/noun for "wish" or "desire" ("What do you fancy for dinner?"). One needs to beware that, being "slang", the phrase is not apt to appear in any academic works, and so early references found would tend to be in plays and novels, where a double entendre of sorts is much more likely, if only to make it past the censors. – Hot Licks Sep 11 '15 at 12:06
  • (But such a double entendre would be on the part of that writer, not implying that the phrase originated with that hidden meaning.) – Hot Licks Sep 11 '15 at 12:11
  • @HotLicks if you can recall reading TYF in US literature that had a double entendre meaning, I'd love to hear it.... and upvote it, too. – Mari-Lou A Sep 11 '15 at 12:16
  • @Mari-LouA - I've personally only heard the phrase used lewdly in "guy talk" ("Boy, I'd like to tickle her fancy!") where there was no need for a pre-existing double entendre sense. I don't ever recall reading a use in that sense. But I don't really recall reading the phrase at all. – Hot Licks Sep 11 '15 at 12:32

This answer addresses only the first question of the four asked above—"Was 'Whatever tickles your fancy' originally a double entendre expression?"

Early instances of 'tickle [one's] fancy'

I consider it unlikely that the phrase "tickle [one's] fancy" originated as a double entendre. One of the earliest matches for the phrase that a Google Books search finds is from The Princesse Cloria, or, The Royal Romance (1661), spoken by man named Creses:

No sooner was I come to the presence of Hercrombrotus, but according to his usual fashion of dissimulation, he received me with a most chearful countenance, (seldom putting on other to his greatest enemies) and withal discoursed with such loving and familiar language, as if that night I should have been his Bed-fellow, pretended onely out of affectionate confidence; which I must confess tickled my fancy, however it settled not my thoughts, since I knew not how to interpret all these alterations; especially in what concerned my Lord Arethusins affairs, appearing with a face so much now contrary to his own former professions:

There is no evident sexual implication here.

Four years later, from Francis Kirkman [Richard Head), The English Rogue: Continued in the Life of Meriton Latroon, and Other Extravagants, the Second Part (1665):

And because thou art as yet but a Novice in begging, and understand not the mysteries of the Canting language, to principle thee the better, thou shalt have a Doxy to be thy Companion, by whom thou maist receive fit instructions for thy purpose. And thereupon he singled me out a young Girl of about fourteen years of age, which tickled my fancy very much that I had gotten a young wanton to dally withal; but this was not all, I must presently be married unto her after their fashion by their Patrico, (who among Beggars is their Priest) which was done after this manner.

Here the setting is sufficiently heavy with sexual interest, but the context indicates that nothing licentious can yet have occurred—and in any case it is the boy, not the girl, whose fancy is tickled. In an odd way, the fact that this setting invites innuendo makes the lack of any evident double entendre here a stronger than usual point in favor of the argument that the phrase didn't have a widely recognized double meaning in 1665.

Another early instance presents an even less plausible occasion for double entendre. From William Allen, The Danger of Enthusiasm Discovered, in an Epistle to the Quakers (1674):

But doubtless the inward Pride, the over-valuing of your selves, which I have been admonishing you of, hath had a great hand in bringing you to it [a belief "That the Light within, without being taught by man or by the Scripture, is the Rule of Faith and Practice"]. And if ever you be recovered from this snare of the Devil, it must be by being brought to a sight and sence of your own injudiciousness and ignorance, and altogether groundless confidence. And if you were but well awakened out of that Spirit of Slumber, into which your intoxication hath cast you, and out of that pleasant Dream in it, which hath so tickled your fancy, you would be ashamed and confounded before God and Men, that ever you should be so strangely deluded, and prevailed upon as you have been, to trouble the World with your whimsies and fancies, and thereby to bring a scandal upon the Christian Religion, and make sport for them that have no mind seriously to consider the things of the Gospel, and to encourage Romish Agents in their design against the Reformation.

And from William Howel, An Institution of General History, Or the History of the Ecclesiastical Affairs of the World (1685):

No sooner had he [Peuda, of Mercia] got the Power into his Hands, but he improved it for the Molestation of his Neighbours, thinking it no fault at all to disturb the World, to ruine Families, overturn Kingdoms, and destroy a Multitude of innocent Souls, and all to gratify the humour of one single Man, to tickle his fancy with the pitifull thought of domineering; the true account of the 'Actions of Conquerours, (or as that little one told the greatest of them) those publick Pirates who rob with whole Armies and Fleets, whose Power makes their Murthers and Robberies lawfull, and alone distinguisheth them from those puny ones, to which the Halter is appropriate.

Early instances of 'tickle the fancy'

In the full Oxford English Dictionary (1971 edition), the phrase "tickle the fancy" appears under a particular figurative use of the verb tickle:

5. fig. To excite amusement in ; to divert ; often in the phrase to tickle the fancy. Also absol.

It seems possible that the earliest instances of "tickle [one's] fancy" cited by Etymonline are actually instances of "tickle the fancy." The OED's first example of the phrase tickle the fancy is from 1774, but Google Books finds this instance from Edward Reynolds (Bishop or Norwich), Israels Prayer in Time of Trouble, with Gods Gracious Answer Thereunto (1645):

When I heare men magnifie quaint and polite discourses in the ministry of the word, and speak against Sermons that are plaine and wholesome, I look upon it not so much as an Act of pride (though the wisdome of the flesh is very apt to scorne the simplicity of the Gospel) but indeed as an act of feare and cowardize ; because where all other externall trimmings and dresses are wanting to tickle the fancy, there the Word hath the more downright and sad operation upon the conscience, and must consequently the more startle and terrifie.

And from Richard Baxter, The Saints' Everlasting Rest (1654):

The fittest temper for a true Believer, is to be in the spirit on the Lords Day: This was St Johns temper on that day. And what can bring us to this ravishment in the Spirit, but the spiritual beholding of our ravishing glory? Surely though an outward Ordinance may delight the ear, or tickle the fancy, yet it is the views of God that must ravish the Soul. There is a great deal of difference betwixt the receiving of the Word with joy, Mat.13.20. and being in the Spirit on the Lords Day, Rev.1.10.

Likewise, from Thomas Sprat (Bishop of Rochester), The History of the Royal-Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (1667):

In plain terms, a universal abuse [through raillery and wit] of every thing, though it may tickle the fancy never so much, is inhuman madness ; as one of the Ancients well expresses it, who calls such mirth humanis Bacchari rebus. If all things were made the subjects of such humour, all worthy designs would soon be laugh'd out of the World ; and for our present sport, our Posterity would become barbarous.

From Nathanael Culverwell, "The Schisme," in An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature (1669):

And unlesse the Word of God were, as the Jewes tells us of the Manna, though very fabulously, ... unlesse the Word of God had so many several relishes, agreeable to every ones liking: Even this, though Angels food shall be loathed, and nauseated, and surely this argues a carnal Spirit. Must the νομος[?] βασιλικος bow to you and the Gospel of the Kingdome become so basely serviceable, as to do homage to your lusts? must that Word which should search the Conscience, tickle the fancy, and feed a worm of curiosity that never dyes?

Also, from Walter Vaughan, "To the Reader," prefacing his translation of Michel Baudier, The History of the Administration of Cardinal Zimenes, Great Minister of State in Spain (1679):

The Book (like the pack of Ulysses, made up of toyes for Women, and Arms for a Heroe,) though checquer'd with a pleasing variety of accidents to tickle the fancy of the lightest wits, consists chiefly of Generous Examples of solid vertue, to kindle emulation in the bravest Spirits: ...

From An Historical and Political Discourse of the Laws & Government of England, the First Part (1682):

And in continuance of time, other matters also crowded into that Society [of the Marshal's Court], although sometimes under the Directory of the Constable of England as well as at other times under the Marshal ; more particularly, that power of determining matters concerning Torniament ; a sport that like a Sarcasm tickles the fancy, but wounds the heart ; and being of as little use in a Commonwealth as of benefit, therefore is laid aside ; nor need I to speak any more concerning it.

And from John Flavel, Pneumatologia, a Treatise of the Soul of Man (1685), reprinted in The Whole Works of the Reverend Mr. John Flavel (1701):

Pliny tells us, That the Mermaids [that is, the Sirens] have most enchanting, charming Voices, and frequent pleasant green Medows, but heaps of dead mens Bones are always found where they haunt: that which tickles the Fancy stabs the Soul. If the Pain (as Anacreon well observes) were before the Pleasure, no man would be tempted by it, but the Pleasure being first and sensible, and the Torment coming after, and as yet invisible, this allures so many to destruction.


It seems very possible that the earliest wording of "tickle [one's] fancy" was actually "tickle the fancy," where the verb tickle was understood figuratively to mean something like "amuse" or "divert" and where the noun fancy was understood to refer to "imagination" or "thought" or "mental activity." The fact that so many of the earliest recorded uses of the phrase in Google Books search results come from religious figures suggests that "tickle the fancy" was not understood at the outset to allude to anything beyond its obvious figurative meaning.

The sexual double entendre of "tickle [one's] fancy" might have been used in certain circles from very early days, but any such usage evidently did not taint the phrase significantly to dissuade serious-minded authors from continuing to use it. The same might be said of the phrase as used in the present day by a great many people who have no intention of being salacious.

  • Did you try searching for "tickle/d or tickl'd her fancy" or "tickling her fancy"? – Mari-Lou A Sep 6 '15 at 14:13
  • @Mari-LouA: Google Books searches turn up nothing from the seventeenth century for those search terms. As always, Google Books search results can be unreliable. For example, a search for "with his dill doul" turns up nine matches to those words from the 1680s ballad you cite, but the earliest publication date for those matches is 1877 for a collection of old songs reprinted by the Ballad Society. – Sven Yargs Sep 6 '15 at 15:54
  • The author does quote a lot of innuendos and double entendre from Pepys Ballads, 1672-96, it seems to have contained quite a saucy collection of songs. – Mari-Lou A Sep 6 '15 at 17:54
  • @Mari-LouA I know from Elizabethan rounds in English (round = type of song with very informal language) that anything and everything could and was used for sexual innuendo back then. (Think: middle school.) Example: "Once, twice, thrice, I Julia tried." From the rest of the words of the song, the sexual meaning was clear. – aparente001 Sep 6 '15 at 20:58

What I've been able to find as of now:

According to etymonline the expression to tickle one's fancy is from 1640s

The following extract suggests that the original definition may have been close to the current euphemistic one:

Tickle your fancy:

  • This idiomatic expression is used when something pleases you or strongly engages your interest, though it can also be used as a euphemism for sexual pleasure or attraction, especially in women.

  • If you break down the phrase, tickle is used to mean 'to excite or stir up in a pleasing manner' (think of the smiling, laughing reaction of a person being physically tickled), and fancy as a noun that means 'a notion or whim, a fantasy.'

  • Dating at least from the late 1700's, tickle your fancy's original definition may have originally been closer to our modern euphemistic approach.

  • One of the earliest known references comes from Abraham Tucker's 1774 In the Light of Nature Pursued, the author tells of animals "whose play had a quality of striking the joyous perception, or, as we vulgarly, say, tickling the fancy."

  • After World War II, British English speakers began using it in a rhyming slang expression that associated a Nancy (a male homosexual) with tickling your fancy (arousing you sexually or performing sexual acts with you). An alternate version is found in strike your fancy.


Also The Phrase Finder suggest that one of the earliest known usage is from 1774:

  • The Oxford English Dictionary cites examples of the phrase, to wit:

  • "a1774 TUCKER Lt. Nat. II. 129 Whose play had a quality of striking the joyous perception, or, as we vulgarly say, tickling the fancy. 1837 LOCKHART Scott. an. 1816 note, Such..was the story that went the round of the newspapers at the time, and highly tickled Scott's fancy. 1858 DORAN Crt. Fools 10 Poor as the joke was, it..tickled the fancy of the Tirynthians. . . ."

An example of 19th century AmE usage of 'tickle her fancy' with a possible double meaning is from Knickerbacker, Or, New-York Monthly Magazine, Volume 46, 1855:

  • Would you woo a young virgin of fifteen years, You must tickle her fancy with sweets and dears ; Ever toying and playing, and sweetly, sweetly Sing a love- sonnet and charm her ears; Wittily, prettily, talk her down, Phrase her and praise her, ...
  • Sorry, but I can't upvote twice. I was "toying" with the idea of placing a bounty but now I'm not so sure.... what do you think? Is it worth it? – Mari-Lou A Sep 7 '15 at 7:56
  • I think that the 2 answers offer evidence for your first 3 questions. It depends on the level of accuracy you are looking for, which for thus expression may be very difficult to find. – user66974 Sep 7 '15 at 8:02
  • Pity... I thought I was really onto something here. Oh well, it's still a conversation opener/piece :) – Mari-Lou A Sep 7 '15 at 8:06
  • The song "Would you woo a young virgin" may have been printed in an American magazine in 1855, but it originated in early 18th century England (Ref. Broadside Ballads ed. Lucie Skeaping.) – Kate Bunting Feb 24 '18 at 9:34

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.