meaning and origin of the phrase ‘nudge, nudge’

The phrase nudge, nudge (wink, wink), sometimes followed by say no more, is used to imply cheeky, conspiratorial or mischievous insinuation or innuendo, especially of a sexual nature.

This phrase generally refers to Nudge Nudge, a sketch from the third episode of the British comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which was first broadcast on the BBC on Sunday 19th October 1969; this sketch features the author, Eric Idle (born 1943), and Terry Jones (born 1942) as two strangers who meet in a pub:

– Idle: Is your wife a… a goer… eh? Know what I mean? Know what I mean? Nudge nudge. Nudge nudge. Know what I mean? Say no more. Know what I mean?
– Jones: I beg your pardon?
– Idle: Your wife… does she, er, does she ‘go’… eh? eh? eh? Know what I mean, know what I mean? Nudge nudge. Say no more.
– Jones: Well, she sometimes ‘goes’, yes.
– Idle: I bet she does. I bet she does. I bet she does. Know what I mean? Know what I mean? Nudge nudge.
– Jones: I’m sorry, I don’t quite follow you.
– Idle: Follow me. Follow me. And I like that. That’s good. A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat, eh?
– Idle: Your wife interested in er… photographs, eh? Know what I mean? Photographs, ‘he asked him knowingly’.
– Jones: Photography?
– Idle: Yes. Nudge nudge. Snap snap. Grin grin, wink wink, say no more?

However, nudge, nudge was in usage before that episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was broadcast, since the U.S. journalist John McAleenan had used it to draw attention to a sexual innuendo in C’est la vie, Denise, published in Today: Florida’s Space Age Newspaper (Cocoa Beach, Florida) of Sunday 11th May 1969:

We are heading for a glass of champagne, because, among other things, Craig Karrar says he has heard if Denise got a couple of drinks in her she would really put on a show and if I was going to be with her later on that night I should have a bottle in the car. Nudge. Nudge.

John McAleenan used nudge, nudge again to draw attention to a sexual innuendo in A Fashion Show For Pantywaists, published on Sunday 23rd August 1970 in the same newspaper, Today: Florida’s Space Age Newspaper (Cocoa Beach, Florida):

“Pssssst,” hissed an ex-friend, “how’d you like to go to a . . . uh, well (nudge nudge) . . . a lingerie show? Just for men. How about that, baby? How does that sound?”

John McAleenan also used nudge, nudge to describe the gesture of prodding somebody with the elbow in order to draw attention to an innuendo—as in the following from Sweating It Out Backstage, published in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York) of Thursday 24th June 1971:

“Listen, with a show like this you got to have extra women, right?” Nudge, nudge with the elbow. “Do you think that maybe there will be some left over?”

The earliest occurrence that I have found of the phrase with reference to the above-quoted episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus is from A dead carnation, but the memories of romance are fresh, by Roberta Rosser, published in the Belfast Telegraph (Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Wednesday 1st July 1970:

Decided to clear out the glory-hole cupboard of the flat the other night. What a corny mess!
The champagne corks were the first things to go. I mean, if you’ve seen one champagne cork you’ve seen them all and even though they meant a lot when they were popped, there’s no telling which little slices of my life they come from.
The dead carnation stays. It goes wherever I go. In fact, the damn thing has been going around with me for about four years. […]
I’m keeping his handkerchief, my first pay packet, my first published work (a profound piece about a local council meeting!), the picture of my naked godson and a whistle from a Christmas cracker.
The only thing from the last remaining rubble I threw out without feeling was a betting slip which lost me ten bob on a horse called “Night of Gladness”
Nudge, nudge . . . say no more—and that’s final.

The second-earliest occurrence that I have found of the phrase with reference to the above-quoted episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus is from this advertisement, published in the West Lothian Courier (Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland) of Friday 19th March 1971:

ADMIT IT — YOU MUST HAVE A BREAK AWAY SOON (nudge nudge, elbow elbow, say no more)
Then come along and consult the experts on carefree holidays
                                                    Knowepark Caravans
Telephone Stoneyburn 259

'nudge nudge' - West Lothian Courier (Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland) - 19 March 1971

The earliest adjectival use of the phrase that I have found is from the review of the operetta Die Fledermaus, which had been broadcast on BBC 1—review by Edward Greenfield, published in The Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Tuesday 28th December 1971:

Frenchified “Fledermaus” à la Feydeau provided frothy television fare on Sunday night. Here was style in the acting (operatic exaggeration used for once to good purpose), from first rate singing and exceptionally light-footed accompaniment from Raymond Leppard and the New Philharmonia Orchestra.
“I’d know those top notes anywhere,” said the gay wife, Rosalinda, at the very start of the Strauss operetta, using a nudge-nudge style with eyes fluttered at the camera, which threatened to become mannered, but never did.

The phrase is sometimes used as a verb—as in Bad mothers satisfy men . . . good mothers don’t, by Jill Tweedie, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Thursday 24th May 1979:

On the one hand we have the Mother—a sacred object to be prayed to, stood up for in buses, ushered off sinking ships and invoked in War, Patriotism and Memorials to the Dead. On the other hand we have the Woman—a sexual object to be lusted after, chased down dark streets, whistled at on the silver screen and nudge nudge wink wink’d in every comedy series.

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