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The Words of Dickens

Tuesday 7 February 2012 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. I was going to pass over it in silence, not wanting particularly to add to the mass of comments about his enduring relevance. But then, in an idle moment of curiosity, I fired up the Oxford English Dictionary to learn more about the linguistic legacy the man has left us. He wrote such delightful and insightful descriptions of London and its people that I wondered if his verbal inventiveness matched his artistic abilities.

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

Dickens is highly rated by the OED. He is the 13th most frequently quoted source, well ahead of his contemporaries, though this may in part reflect his extraordinary output rather than his creativity. Among the 9,218 quotations from his works in the OED, 265 words and compounds are cited as having been first used by him in print and another 1,586 as having been used in a new sense.

Life’s too short to look at them all; let’s stay with the 265 new words and phrases. He’s credited with inventing such standard English terms as boredom, flummox, rampage, butter-fingers, tousled, sawbones, confusingly, casualty ward, allotment garden, kibosh, footlights, dustbin, fingerless, fairy story, messiness, natural-looking, squashed, spectacularly and tintack.

Anybody who cites these based on the OED’s evidence risks being regarded as out of touch. Most of the entries haven’t been revised since they were compiled a century ago. Our etymological knowledge has improved greatly since then and has had a huge boost from the introduction of searchable digitised archives. I trawled the British Library’s archive of nineteenth-century newspapers to check how original these words really were. A lot weren’t.

Boredom, for example, which Dickens included in Bleak House in 1853, is known from the Theatrical Examiner of April 1841; he used casualty ward in Sketches by Boz in 1836 but it’s known from Jackson’s Oxford Journal dated January 1825; footlights is in the same work but is earlier in the Morning Chronicle of December 1822; natural-looking is likewise from Sketches by Boz but a Mr T Hood advertised natural-looking wigs in the Morning Post a quarter of a century earlier, in 1810; confusingly, from a letter of May 1863, is in the Morning Post of February 1852; sharp practice comes from The Pickwick Papers of 1837 but is trumped by The Bury and Norwich Post of February 1810; fairy story, which Dickens included in David Copperfield as an alternative to the older fairy-tale, may be found in the London Standard in December 1827; snobbish, in The Old Curiosity Shop of 1841, appears likewise in the London Standard, in May 1836; kibosh, also from The Pickwick Papers, has been backdated several years by recent careful research; butter-fingers is also in The Pickwick Papers but David Block, the author of Baseball Before We Knew It, has found an American example from a year earlier, in a verse about boys playing an early form of baseball.

Other terms are certainly his to claim, including sawbones, messiness, whizz-bang, unpromisingly, spiflication and seediness. Flummox appears in The Pickwick Papers but was also included by James Halliwell-Phillipps in his Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words in 1846 — it seems that Dickens breathed new life into an old dialect word. Tousled, as touzled, is in Dombey & Son of 1848, but appeared four years before in the Manchester Times and Gazette of December 1844; however, this is in a story with the title Trotty Veck and the Nor’-Wester, by one Charles Dickens, so he has neatly antedated himself.

None of this detracts from Dickens’s skill in using language. He is the first recorder of many items of slang (one contemporary critic called him the professor of slang), which he didn’t invent but which his sharp ear for informal speech lovingly noted. In other cases he popularised colloquial terms that might without him have died out, such as kibosh and devil-may-care. He had a trick of making compound adjectives from existing words that concisely expressed a thought: angry-eyed, hunger-worn, proud-stomached, fancy-dressed, coffee-imbibing and ginger-beery, as well as new compound nouns such as copying-clerk and crossing-sweeper.

As these examples show, we must always be sceptical of claims about who invented a word. Deeper digging often demonstrates that others had got to them first. But nobody is going to be less attracted by Dickens through knowing that.

Page created 11 Feb. 2012

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Last modified: 11 February 2012.