What the Dickens?

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Over the year, a few of our blog posts have mentioned words that derive from people or fictional characters: ‘quixotic’ from Don Quixote, ‘malapropism’ from Mrs Malaprop, ‘puckish’ from Puck, ‘July and August’ from Julius and Augustus Caesar, and many more.

This week I thought I’d take a look at Charles Dickens, the famous nineteenth-century author, after whom the word ‘Dickensian’ was coined. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Dickensian’ as an adjective used to describe something that is ‘reminiscent of the novels of Charles Dickens, especially in suggesting the poor social conditions or comically repulsive characters that they portray’.

Dickens is well-known for his inventive use of language (coining or bringing into popularity words such as ‘flummoxed’, ‘butter-fingers’, and ‘slow-coach’). This linguistic flair is particularly unforgettable in the names and traits of his characters. In Dickens’s 1843 novella ‘A Christmas Carol’, the central character Ebenezer Scrooge is a mean-spirited, Christmas-hating, miserly man, who is described as: ‘...a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner’. Over the course of the story, Scrooge is visited by four ghosts and comes to learn the effect his ill will and stingy behaviour has on those around him. Today, the word ‘Scrooge’ has become a generic term for someone who is stingy and bad-tempered, i.e. someone who has the same personality traits as Dickens’s character.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Dickens’s work, you may have noticed Scrooge’s most famous expression “Bah Humbug!” at the end of our post on ‘advent’ earlier this month. Though Scrooge only combines the words ‘bah’ and ‘humbug’ twice in the book (more often using ‘humbug’ on its own), the phrase as a whole is often quoted by those who don’t enjoy Christmas traditions and festivities, usually because of the commercialisation of modern celebrations.

As a young child, I assumed that ‘Bah humbug!’ came from someone’s distaste for mint humbugs – it’s easy to imagine someone spitting out an onomatopoeic ‘bah’ sound along with an unpleasant-tasting sweet. I later found out, however, that I rather liked the taste of mint humbugs and, actually, the stripy sweets aren’t associated with Scrooge’s saying. The word ‘humbug’, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, is ‘1751, student slang, "trick, jest, hoax, deception,"’, and is still used today to refer to false or misleading talk or behaviour. Perhaps a modern equivalent of Scrooge’s use of ‘humbug’ would be that he thinks of Christmas as ‘a load of rubbish’ – much less poetic, don’t you agree?

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the expression ‘What the dickens?’ has no connection with the Victorian novelist. One theory is that the word ‘dickens’ has long been used as a euphemism for ‘devil’ or ‘hell’.

What’s your favourite Dickens novel? If you haven’t read any of his books, we certainly recommend it. Perhaps you could start a tradition of reading one book every Christmas – if nothing else it’ll give your friends one more custom to ‘Bah Humbug!’ at!


20 Dec 2013
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