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What Is a "Double Take"?

Jim B.
Jim B.

"Double take" is an English idiom referring to someone who is startled by seeing or hearing something unexpected and makes a surprised reaction. Often, this occurs after a brief delay, since it takes a person a few moments to realize that what they are experiencing is out of the ordinary. In addition, "double take" is a term used in acting to refer to an exaggerated reaction by an actor or actress to something for comic effect. As a matter of fact, the idiom's origins came from movie parlance, referring to a scene that has to be shot twice because of a mistake the first time around.

It is common in the English language for writers and speakers to use certain phrases intended to mean something entirely different from the literal meanings of the words they contain. These phrases are known as idioms, and they gain their new, accepted meanings through common use in a certain culture. Idioms are often colorfully descriptive and more memorable than ordinary expressions. Whenever someone says "I did a double take," he or she is using an idiom.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

The most basic use of this phrase occurs when someone has been surprised and is expressing that reaction without thinking about it. As an example of how the idiom is used, imagine that someone says, "When I saw her walk in with that strange guy, I did a double take." In this example, the implication is that the speaker would never have imagined seeing the two together, and made a startled reaction to the couple's presence as a result.

In many cases, this idiom may refer to people who make a somewhat delayed reaction to what is occurring. Often, a surprising event takes a moment or two to register in the minds of the people experiencing them. That means that they might first act as if nothing were different, at least until the realization sets in that something strange has occurred. At that point, they do a "double take."

This idiom also has an association with movies and television. The origins of the idiom actually come from moviemaking circles. When a director has to shoot a scene for a second time because something has messed up the first, the second scene is known as a "double take." More commonly, the term is used in acting to describe a purposely exaggerated reaction to something that occurs within a scene. This often is used to comedic effect, and many great comic actors are known for their expert timing on "double takes."

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Discussion Comments


I think a double take is really effective when the actor has a very minor reaction at first and then has a huge reaction once the enormity of the situation sets in. A character may walk in on his roommate and a gorilla for example. At first he'll walk right past the "couple" as if this was no big deal. A few steps later, he'll realize his roommate is actually with a gorilla. It's that second reaction that sells the scene to the audience.

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