Word of the Day: Dickens

October 28, 2011 in Word of the Day

This is not an article about the famous Victorian author, nor about the four cities in the USA all called Dickens, nor even the World War II battleship, the USS Dickens; rather, I write about a word that appears only once in Shakespeare’s works, in the following banter that takes place about halfway through The Merry Wives of Windsor.

FORD Well met, Mistress Page. Whither go you?
MISTRESS PAGE Truly, sir, to see your wife. Is she at home?
FORD Ay; and as idle as she may hang together, for want of company. I think, if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.
MISTRESS PAGE Be sure of that,–two other husbands.
FORD Where had you this pretty weather-cock?
MISTRESS PAGE I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of. What do you call your knight’s name, sirrah?
ROBIN Sir John Falstaff.
FORD Sir John Falstaff!
MISTRESS PAGE He, he; I can never hit on’s name. There is such a league between my good man and he! Is your wife at home indeed?
FORD Indeed she is.
MISTRESS PAGE By your leave, sir: I am sick till I see her.

The exchange is worth quoting, not just for its sly reference to lesbianism, but to give a taste of the relaxed style of this dialogue: Mistress Page is on her way to something far more interesting, but takes the time to chat with Robin and Ford. This laid-back context is worth noting, particularly when we recall that the word ‘dickens’ means, according to the OED, ‘devil’.

No-one is quite sure of the etymology of ‘dickens’, but its presence as a modest and far from violent oath, in tune with Shakespeare’s comedy, is only attested from 1599 and Thomas Haywood’s King Edward IV. The exclamation is thus predated by the surname Dickens, which goes back much earlier, as all those places named after members of the Dickens family in the States would suggest. Quite what the Dickens’ family would have made of their family name becoming a mild oath is anyone’s guess, as they could have hardly seen the most probable evolution (from ‘devil’ to ‘devil-kins’ to ‘dickens’) coming.

One final note on the word ‘dickens’, or, more specifically, on the phrase ‘what the dickens’, which has remained a part of our everyday language long after we stopped saying ‘where the dickens have you been?’ and so forth. Bernard Levin famously places it amongst those expressions we use nowadays and owe to Shakespeare, even though Shakespeare was neither its originator nor first recorder. This is an important and oft-overlooked distinction: Shakespeare may be the source of many an English colloquialism, but he is rarely its inventor. Rather, his dramatist’s ear has placed all the curious turns of English in one particularly rich and varied oeuvre, and so facilitated their continuation.

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