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Where the dickens did that word come from?

Did you know that when you get ‘the creeps’, ‘clap eyes’ on someone, or find yourself ‘flummoxed’, you are recalling expressions first used by the novelist Charles Dickens?

Dickens has long been famous for coining some of the most creative character names in English literature (the Fezziwigs, the Jellybys, the Pardiggles, Chevy Slyme, Mrs Spottletoe, Nicholas Tulrumble, and Wopsle, to name but a few), but what is less well-known is that his linguistic creativity is responsible for propelling hundreds of new words and expressions into our language.

It’s hardly surprising that this prolific author and master of description required a few new words to express his meaning. So, with necessity being the mother of invention, we owe Dickens thanks for the first recorded use of the likes of ‘butter-fingers’ (1836), ‘head-work’ (1837), ‘draggle-haired’ (1865), and ‘slow-coach’ (1837). Aside from these more colourful compounds (pairs of words joined to form a new term), Dickens also united some rather more mundane lemmas to form terms which remain in everyday use, like ‘dustbin’ (1847), ‘casualty ward’ (1836), ‘fairy story’ (1849), and ‘egg box’ (1854).

A Scrooge by any other name…

Dickens created new words in other ways than by working with words already in use. Many of his characters’ names have crept into the English language and become bywords for their bearers’ personality traits:

  • Who can forget Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol whose name is now a byword for tight-fistedness and being a killjoy?
  • Fagin is a word synonymous with a thief or a crook because of the villain in Oliver Twist
  • Mr Podsnap’s smugness in Our Mutual Friend gave rise to the noun ‘Podsnappery’, meaning a state of extreme self-satisfaction
  • A Micawber (from the hapless character in David Copperfield) is now used to refer to a person who is romantic, irresponsible, and a feckless optimist – and has even spawned a related verb

Lummy slang words

However, not all of the words first recorded in Dickens’s novels have taken root in the language. What a shame that the words ‘spoffish’ (used to describe a bustling, fussy person), ‘gonoph’ (pickpocket), ‘lummy’ (first rate), and ‘petticoat-governed’ (henpecked), have fallen by the wayside over the past century and a half. With some of these words, it could be that they were already in circulation at the time of writing and that Dickens happened to be the first person to note them in print, but whether he invented them or not, it is probably thanks to him that they became part of the language and went on to have a record in the Oxford English Dictionary – which means their place in the English language is indelibly secured.

This year is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth and we’re still using many words and expressions that he devised (or at the very least that he put into writing for the first time). One imagines he’d be an ickle (1846) bit pleased to know that he and his characters have enriched the English language to such a degree – and, in fact, he’d be entitled to acknowledge this achievement with a bit of Podsnappery.