What the Dickens! It's his birthday

Charles Dickens was born on 7 February 1812 and died on 9 June 1870. He has been part of my life ever since I can remember because my parents loved his novels (my father read them out loud to the family) and when I was a child we took holidays in Broadstairs in Kent and visited all the houses there that have a Dickens association. I love Dickens as the great story-teller. I love him, too, because of his special way with words.

The expression ‘What the dickens!’, of course, 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 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 popularised 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

Dickens is eminently quotable. People of my father’s generation had dozens of Dickens’s lines ready to quote at the drop of a hat. I have rather fewer, alas, but these are four of my favourites:

No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.

Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.

What greater gift than the love of a cat.

A loving heart is the truest wisdom.

Gyles Brandreth