Said the Actress to the Bishop – Meaning & Origin

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Idioms are excellent ways to add figurative language to your speech and writing through various analogies and innuendos. Many popular idioms today have older origins that may seem unrelated to their modern counterparts.

Said the actress to the bishop is the perfect example of this, providing the history of the popular idiom, and one-liner joke, that’s what she said. Let’s take a closer look at this phrase to better understand its use and meaning in today’s modern speech.

What Are Actress Said to the Bishop Jokes?

Said the Actress to the Bishop Meaning Origin

The British idiom said the actress to the bishop is a one-line joke or punchline that turns a previous statement into an innuendo (i.e., it makes the previous dialogue vulgar or lewd). It is seen as especially funny if the previous dialogue was innocent in character.

For example:

  • All you have to do is slide this part into the hole, said the actress to the bishop.
  • If you wait one moment, I can give you a hand, said the actress to the bishop.
  • I’m thankful for what you are offering, said the actress to the bishop.
  • Be sure to measure the length twice, said the actress to the bishop.

Today, the idiom is more commonly used as “that’s what she (or he) said,” which gained popularity through a prime-time sitcom. The origins of this transformation are explained in more detail below.

Is It the Actress or Bishop Said?

Actress Said to the Bishop vs Bishop Said to the Actress Ngram
Actress said to the bishop and bishop said to the actress usage trend.

Variations of the phrase, including said the bishop to the actress, were also used depending on the context. That’s what she said also has variations to accommodate same-sex relationships in today’s modern context.

Origins of the Joke

Acting was not usually viewed as an honorable profession for women during the 18th and 19th centuries, perpetuated by the belief that women who supported themselves were no better than those who sold themselves as whores. Occasionally, actresses in certain circumstances were often poorly paid compared to their male counterparts and may have prostituted themselves to supplement their income. However, it is more likely they were shunned by society due to the freedoms most other women were unable to partake in.

Actresses were sometimes considered bold in their behaviors and often challenged traditional ideological gender roles that considered early marriage and motherhood to be acceptable and proper. Actresses were often single and were not dependent upon a family or husband.

They also were occasionally viewed by society through the characters they played on stage, such as in a male role or wearing costumes considered inappropriate for public use. This garnered negative attention, especially during the Victorian Era, marked by very specific acceptable behaviors for both men and women.

Religious clergy regularly counseled women during confession, which is believed to have led to the one-liner “said the actress to the bishop.”

It is a popular innuendo during this time period, showing up multiple times as both said the actress to the bishop and said the bishop to the actress. One of the earliest documentation of the saying dates back to 1930 and shows up multiple times in the novel “Enter the Saint by Leslie Charteris:

” I should be charmed to oblige you—as the actress said to the bishop,” replied the Saint.

“And now let’s get down to business—as the bishop said to the actress,” murmured Simon.

It was especially well used in various published film reviews through the 1930s, as seen here in “The Tatler” (London) on Sept. 10, 1930:

“…the film lends itself to an expression which demands ‘imaginative velocity and moral nonchalance, unlimited risibility, and a sensitivity to the fantasy of the commonplace.'” “Bunk, darling,” as the bishop said to the actress.”

The idiom died out with the rise of film in the early to mid-20th century but made a comeback with the popular British television show “The Office.” When that show was adapted for American audiences, the idiom was changed to that’s what she said.

Let’s Review

Likely originating to make light of the poor reputation many actresses acquired as self-sufficient and independent women during the 18th and 19th centuries, said the actress to the bishop is a one-line joke of a sexual nature.

The idiom provides an innuendo often following a sentence that is innocent in nature, adding a twist to it that insinuates a lewd or vulgar meaning. Popularly used during the 1920s and 30s, it fell somewhat out of disfavor but was picked back up with the British sitcom “The Office.” The US version changed the saying to that’s what she said, which is now the more popular phrase.

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