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Merriam Webster's definition (and all of the definitions I've found) for double entendre is: "a word or expression capable of two interpretations with one usually risqué." Although "usually" is there, is there a similar term for expressions that have two or more meanings, but none of them are risqué?

For example, "Better is up to you."

  • If the emphasis is placed on 'up,' this sentence means 'better's' relative position to 'you'
  • If the emphasis is placed on 'you,' it means 'you' have to cause 'better'

Both are intended, but without explanation, how can interpreters be expected to get both intentions? The intent of the writer is to have the reader interpret what they need most, assuming the unconscious mind will calculate that without a reader's awareness...and when they read it again, their unconscious mind might calculate a different meaning because it decides that's more important during that read. In other words, the author does not care which one they interpret, as long as it's the one they need most at the time of each reading...or they let the power of the sentence have all it's intended meanings.

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    What are you actually looking for? A list of neutral double entendre expressions?
    – user 66974
    Jan 20, 2021 at 15:57
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    If it's intended to be funny, it's a pun. If it's not intended to be funny it's just ambiguity. Is that where you're going?
    – Mitch
    Jan 20, 2021 at 16:12
  • " ... how can interpreters be expected to get both intentions?" - Is this whole question simply a way of venting your feelings? If not, what precisely are you asking us to do? Jan 20, 2021 at 20:18
  • @Mitch - yes, pun is what I'm looking for, if humor is my aim. But I'm looking for the same thing regarding wisdom...not risque. Jan 21, 2021 at 19:29
  • @chasly - supports Monica, no, it's not venting. Your unconscious mind makes 20,000 calculations per second on average and you are only aware of less than .0001% of them. If you think of subliminal advertising, the advertiser is saying one thing while tapping into your subconscious to deliver the 'real' message...but it does not have to be risque or humorous, as double entendres and puns do. I'm looking for the equivalent term to puns and double entendres that share multiple 'wisdoms' at the same time depending on how the sentence is written. The reader does not consciously recognize it. Jan 21, 2021 at 19:34

2 Answers 2

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You say in a comment:

Your unconscious mind makes 20,000 calculations per second on average and you are only aware of less than .0001% of them. If you think of subliminal advertising, the advertiser is saying one thing while tapping into your subconscious to deliver the 'real' message...but it does not have to be risque or humorous, as double entendres and puns do. I'm looking for the equivalent term to puns and double entendres that share multiple 'wisdoms' at the same time depending on how the sentence is written. The reader does not consciously recognize it.

The answer is simply "ambiguity"

This is a well-known technique that can be used for beneficial purposes or for advertising.

To get full picture you need to study NLP**. Here's a flavour though:

Within hypnotic language, and more specifically within the Milton Model, an ambiguity occurs when a word, phrase or sentence has multiple meanings. Ambiguities are a very useful way to induce confusion. https://planetnlp.com/milton_model_ambiguity.html


**Note that the Wikipedia entry for NLP is a scathing rebuttal. For those who are interested, my point of view is different. (click to read)

In fact current neuroscience is showing some of its principles to be more accurate than previously thought. Am I biased? Yes, I freely admit it. Just by reading one page of an introductory book on NLP book thirty years ago I was able to follow a technique and cure myself of lifelong claustrophobia. It took me 10 minutes. NLP can be considered an extension of the placebo/nocebo effects. These effects have been demonstrated time after time using double-blind experiments in medical research. A minority of patients report (or even show) an improvement just by believing they had the drug. Doctors learn about it in medical school. If a simple placebo can work, then I believe a more complex version of placebo is quite plausible. Incidentally another basis for NLP is therapeutic hypnosis. This has also been shown to allow medical procedures to be carried out without anaesthesia given sufficient hypnotic expertise on the part of the (highly medically qualified) practitioner.

Why this long note? Because many people pooh-pooh NLP without having studied the least thing about it. I'm just getting my oar in first!

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  • Thanks for the word if there is no better, though my feeling is 'ambiguity' implies lack of intention or accidental, which does not apply to the meaning I'm looking for. As for NLP, which I've studied for hundreds of hours, I can tell you it's a powerful tool that StackExchange provides a valuable service toward...what I use if for, but there is a better way to program minds than using words, that bypasses words on the way to neural circuits, if you are interested. Jan 23, 2021 at 19:46
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It is true that for a good part of the doubles entendres found in all circumstances, they are of the risqué sort but indecency is not a defining characteristic.

(SOED) double entendre Pl. double entendres
A double meaning; an ambiguous expression; a phrase with two meanings, one usually indecent. Also, the use of such a meaning or phrase.

Here are instances of double entendres in which can't be made out the least trace of indecency.

  • “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.” (Mae West)
    (ref.) The word “institution” in connection with marriage has two meanings in here. One, it refers to marriage as an important custom of a society. Two, marriage is something that will cause an individual to go to a mental institution.

  • On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital importance of being Earnest. (The Importance of Being Earnest — Oscar Wilde)
    (ref;) This comes after a series of complicated events in which the word “earnest” refers to the character trait as well as to a name. The characters in the story lead double lives and Jack learns that it's important to be earnest, as in honest, but also to be “Earnest,” a fictional persona who stumbles upon various opportunities.

  • To succeed in the world of finance you mustn't be afraid to get your hands dirty. (hypothetical)
    (ref)
    If someone were to say that as the result of personal conviction, he would indubitably be tagged as someone who made a double entendre.

  • The kids are playing cowboys and native Americans.
    (ref.)

There is the word "pun" that does not imply indecency; it is synonymous of another term, apparently recently come into usage.

(Wiktionary) double meaning (plural double meanings)
1 The situation in which a word or phrase has two different, often opposite, meanings. For example, wicked can mean both "good" and "bad".
2 A deliberate construction that plays on two separate meanings of a word or words; a pun.

The artistic and psychological motivations for using and tolerating double entendres must be a rich and interesting subject but this site is not a place where it can be given a thought; so the second part of your question must be ignored.

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  • "the second part" only provides context for the use of the term I'm looking for...it is not the request itself. If Puns have double meanings intended to be humorous, and double entendres have double meanings intended to be risque, then what term describes a sentence with multiple meanings intended to share wisdom...not humor or risque? Jan 21, 2021 at 19:43
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    @Christopher That's a bonus! I haven't thought of it. There is, however, a certitude of mine that in the language of science and the humanities no such linguistics device can be welcome; I can't imagine that the language of strictly reasoned philosophy could include such rhetorical devices, except very marginally. This sort of rhetoric is the province of art essentially and therefore it is not likely to benefit from a specialized term in domains where wisdom is concerned but this quite a relative notion (there are people who find wisdom in rap, where double meanings are rife).
    – LPH
    Jan 21, 2021 at 20:05
  • I agree this is an artistic device, but it is also a persuasive and intuitive device too that can be used in many ways...and given how many uses there are, it is not marginally valuable...it's just not as usable because a word does not exist to communicate it, or too few know how to share it. That's why I turn to StackExchange, to find better ways to communicate highly complex things with a word, term or phrase. If this is not the right place to do that (no offense intended), I hope someone will tell me where I can go for that. Jan 23, 2021 at 19:55
  • @Christopher I think that the scope of "art" should be taken at large: from the sales pitch of a lowly street vendor to the speech of a president there is art. I restrict my statement as applying only to the language of science, high philosophy and the such, in which there is no room for ambiguity. In order to communicate highly complex things you can't depend on single words, or if what a word by itself represents is something complicated it belongs to a domain of specialized knowledge (science, religion,…); words such a transcendentalism and existentialism (1/2)
    – LPH
    Jan 23, 2021 at 20:49
  • @Christopher are never too clear until you've given some time to the reading of Emerson and Sartre respectively (which I never did) — much background needed. The most complicated meanings are communicated by arrangements of words (not necessarily difficult words), I think, and you find those in poetry; but, again, background is essential, in particular a perfect fluency with prose so as to follow as well as possible all the departures from it that are often used in poetical language. (2/2)
    – LPH
    Jan 23, 2021 at 20:50

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