The Meaning Behind ‘That’s What She Said’

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Have you ever wondered why people say, “That’s what she said?” Sure, we all know it’s a kind of sexual innuendo. But where did the idiom come from?

“That’s What She Said” in Pop Culture

Wayne’s World and The Office fans have certainly heard the phrase “That’s what she said” one too many times. The phrase made its TV debut on a 1975 episode of Saturday Night Live. Chevy Chase, famous for not having a filter, said the phrase during a “Weekend Update” skit. SNL later used the phrase during its Wayne’s World skits in the 80s and 90s. And of course, when Wayne’s World made it to the silver screen, the phrase was used again.

How Steve Carell Overused The Phrase to Its Hysterical Demise

Steve Carell’s character from The Office, Michael Scott, also says “That’s what she said.” The phrase is a hallmark quote by the awkward manager. He says it at all the wrong times, which makes for some seriously uncomfortable but funny moments.

What “That’s What She Said” Actually Means

So, where exactly did “That’s what she said?” come from? Well, to start, in case it isn’t obvious, it’s a response that is given when someone says a double entendre that could be taken sexually.  An example is, “It’s so hard,” but the speaker is actually referring to something non-sexual. For instance, if your friend is slicing into a stale loaf of bread and says, “It’s so hard,” you could jokingly respond, “That’s what she said.”

Conversely, a person can change the phrase to “That’s what he said” by using it in response to something that could be taken out of context as a sexual innuendo referring to a woman’s anatomy. For instance, if your dog just walked inside from the rain and got your marble foyer all slippery. You might say, “It’s so wet inside,” and someone could say, “That’s what he said” or “That’s what she said.”

The point is, the phrase is used in times of inappropriate and purposeful misinterpretation of a sexual double entendre, as a euphemism and a joke. The joke is supposed to be funny. Unless, of course, you’re Michael Scott from The Office. Then the jokes are only funny to the omniscient viewer on the other side of the TV screen. His jokes are usually just awkward.

“As The Actress Said to The Bishop”: The Original Joke

But “That’s what she said” may have much older origins than a 70s Saturday Night Live skit. It’s believed that it comes from “as the actress said to the bishop,” but who exactly dropped that line first isn’t clear.

Some say that it was first used in a conversation between late 19th and early 20th-century actress Lillie Langtry and the Bishop of Worcestor. At a country house party on a Sunday morning before church, the Bishop allegedly suffered a poke from a rose bush, to which Langtry later asked, “How’s your prick?” The Bishop allegedly replied, “Throbbing,” and a butler who overheard the interaction dropped some potatoes.

But then some say that this story about Lillie Langtry and the Bishop of Worcestor is actually a form of Wellerism. Wellerisms were born of Charles Dickens’ character, Same Weller, in his novel The Pickwick Papers. While his “Wellerisms” wasn’t quite as dirty or sexual as “That’s what she said,” they were a literary misinterpretation of common sayings. Specifically, Dickens sought to reframe common proverbs by having a character say them in a literal way that also changed their meanings.

No One Knows Who Started It

Other sources attribute “As the actress said to the Bishop” to stage plays between 1901 and 1910. Its first form in print, according to sources on the internet, could be Leslie Charteris’ 1928 novel Meet the Tiger. However, WordHistories.net debunks this claim after a thorough meta-analysis of literary usage of the phrase.

According to etymologist Pascal Tréguer, the phrase was commonly used throughout the 1930s. He found “as the actress said to the Bishop” in Leslie Charteris’ book Enter the Saint (1930). It was used five times by the character Simon Templar. And a reverse version (“as the Bishop to the actress”) was published in a September 10, 1930 article in The Tatler. James Agate was giving a review of Paul Rotha’s book, The Film Till Now: A Survey of the Cinema.

Who exactly started the phrase that later became “That’s what she said,” we may never know. But hopefully, whoever it was, they’re rolling over with laughter in their grave. It has certainly become one of the silliest and most annoying idioms of all time.

Read More: The Meaning Behind Fleetwood Mac’s Hit Song ‘Dreams’

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