What the dickens! It's Shakespeare's birthday

Or is it?  We know he was baptised on 26 April in 1564, so we reckon he could have been born on 23 April.  We know for sure he died on 23 April in 1616.  

What's your favourite line of Shakespeare?  Mine's: 'I was adored once too' - from Twelfth Night.  My wife's is: 'The rest is silence' - from Hamlet.  When I was a student at Oxford, I met the brilliant Times columnist Bernard Levin, whose admiration of Shakespeare rivalled mine and whose knowledge of the Complete Works far exceeded it.  Levin loved to quote Shakespeare and wrote a dazzling piece to prove that we all quote the Bard much more often than we realise.  Here it is:

If you cannot understand my argument, and declare ‘It's Greek to me’, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger; if your wish is farther to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise -why, be that as it may, the more fool you , for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then - to give the devil his due - if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut tut! For goodness' sake! What the dickens! But me no buts! - it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.

Isn’t that a surprise?  ‘What the dickens!’ has nothing to do with the great English novelist, author of Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist.  ‘Dickens’ was once a euphemism for the devil and the expression is first found in print in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor: ‘I cannot tell what the dickens his name is.’

Happily, Charles Dickens (1812-70) has managed to make his way into the dictionary in his own right:

Dickensian: adj; of or reminiscent of the novels of Charles Dickens especially in suggesting the poor social conditions or comically repulsive characters they portray.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, Dickens is credited in with coining 258 new words and has 1,586 first-citations for giving a new sense to a word.  Of the 258, my favourite is:  


which first appeared in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, more commonly known as The Pickwick Papers, in 1836:  

At every bad attempt at a catch, and every failure to stop the ball, he launched his personal displeasure at the head of the devoted individual in such denunciations as 'Ah, ah!—stupid'—'Now, butter-fingers'—'Muff'— 'Humbug'—and so forth.

Dickens did not originate ‘muff’, an old word with a variety of meanings, nor ‘humbug’, though he popularized the expression ‘Bah!  Humbug!’ by giving it to Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol

Words and phases Dickens did give the language include:

doormat, when used to describe someone who gets walked all over by other people;






the creeps, as in to give someone the creeps

clap eyes

slow coach


casualty ward

fairy story

 egg box

devil may care

For more words by Shakespeare, scroll back to the blog for 23 March 2018.  Shakespeare inspired us all.  P G Wodehouse got some of his best ideas from the Bard.  'What ho, Jeeves!' is just an echo of Shakespeare's 'What ho, Malvolio!' 


Gyles Brandreth