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A few words from and about that devil-may-care Dickens

July 2012

This year marks the bicentenary of one of the all-time literary greats—Charles Dickens. No other author has provided us with so many memorable characters who are recognizable to so many people: Artful Dodger, David Copperfield, Fagin, Little Nell, Oliver Twist, Pip, Scrooge, Tiny Tim and Uriah Heep.

And aside from Shakespeare, no other writer has endowed us with so many works that are considered classics. On the Greatest Literature of All Time site, these eight works by Dickens are listed: Bleak House, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Hard Times, Little Dorritt, Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities.

From the age of 15, Dickens’s life was characterized by constant activity and metamorphoses. At different times he worked as a legal clerk, a courtroom and parliamentary shorthand reporter, a journalist, an actor, a magazine editor and manager of theatrical productions.

He wrote in a didactic style that revealed the squalid nature of Victorian society, characterized by its widespread poverty and lack of justice for those on the bottom rungs of the pecking order.

Many of his most memorable characters are portrayed negatively and serve as examples of the hypocrisies of the British class system and the cruel practices of capitalism in 19th-century Britain.

Dickens, however, was hardly a saint. He saddled his wife, Catherine, with 10 children and after 22 years of marriage decided that she wasn’t worthy of him, then coerced her into a separation while constantly mocking her to his friends.

Dickens met Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1862 and in a letter Dostoevsky penned years later, he related that Dickens had told him “that all the good, simple people in his novels ... are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was ... his cruelty ... his shrinking from those whom he ought to love. There were two people in him, one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite.”

While Dickens’s place in the pantheon of literature is widely recognized, not as well known are the contributions he made to the English language. The OED sports almost 10,000 quotations from him and among authors he is the sixth-most-cited individual.

He is credited with being the first person to use 258 words and phrases that include “aglitter,” “bachelor apartment,” “boredom,” “butter-fingers,” “cloak and dagger,” “coffee shop,” “devil-may-care,” “dustbin,” “facts and figures,” “flummox,” “gonoph” (to mean pickpocket, from the Hebrew word for thief), “never say die,” “pay off,” “preggers,” “prima ballerina,” “put the kibosh on,” and “sit-down” (noun sense).

Even more extensive are the lists of words where he is the first person to use it in a particular context. Here we have “balance (to steady the body under the influence of opposing forces), “balloon” (cartoon sense), “bedevilment” (maddening trouble), “card” (to mean “original character”), (the) “creeps,” “gay dog” (man given to self-indulgence), “humane” (to cause minimal pain), “nasty” (to mean “serious”), “peck” (to mean “kiss”), “revolver” (gun sense), “stunning” (to mean “splendid”), “to whom it may concern,” and “up” (a rise in prosperity).

Dickens is not responsible for the expression “What the Dickens?” The first citation of the word is in 1599 in Thomas Heywood’s King Edward IV-Part I and Shakespeare used the term in 1616 in Merry Wives of Windsor. Dickens here serves as a euphemistic word for “the devil.” The word, “Dickensian,” to refer to Dickens style or the conditions that the author describes, surfaced in our language in 1881, 11 years after his death.

Howard’s next book, From Happy to
Homosexual and other mysterious
semantic shifts, will be published in 2013.



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