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What does Tenet mean? The movie's title explained

(Image credit: Melinda Sue Gordon)

Not seen Christopher Nolan's Tenet yet? Spoilers are ahead – check out our Tenet ending explained piece for more on the film's story. 

The first thing people noticed about Christopher Nolan's Tenet is that the name is a palindrome – it's something the promotional posters for the film leaned into heavily, showing two different versions of The Protagonist (John David Washington) and suggesting that events play out in the film in two different ways. 

In the finished film, the palindromic element to the story is the fact that characters can move forwards and backwards through time, using a device called a turnstile. That, essentially, is key to the name Tenet – as well as being the name of the organization that recruits John David Washington in the film (that an older version of the same character will later create), though, it does have a very specific meaning in the film. 

Below, we'll explain what the name 'Tenet' means, as you continue your journey in figuring out this confusing-as-hell movie. Internationally, the movie has already been released – and US viewers can see it starting this week, assuming theaters are open near you.

What does the name Tenet mean?

The name Tenet is a direct reference to the key event at the end of the movie – the set piece where the Protagonist, Neil (Robert Pattinson) and Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) secure the Algorithm from Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), in conjunction with two groups of red and blue-marked soldiers.

Specifically, 'Tenet' is the word 'ten', forwards and backwards. In the last set piece of the movie, the red and blue soldiers move forwards and backwards through time by 10 minutes respectively to retrieve the algorithm. This is a 'Temporal Pincer Movement' – one team shares information that the other team can use about the events to come to ensure the end result. 

Ten forwards, ten backwards – Tenet. It's really as simple as that, but it's key to stopping Sator's plan and saving the world, so in the film it has enormous significance. 

The Protagonist, then, later named his organization after this, knowing that preventing the world's destruction at this exact point in time would be his eventual goal.