It’s Been as Long as the Dickens – 200 Years Today, Since the Birth of this Brilliant Wordsmith

“Fan the sinking flame of hilarity with the wing of friendship; and pass the rosy wine.”*

Charles Dickens 7 February, 1812 - 9 June 1970

I am a word lover in awe of those who can not merely find the right word to put in the right place to say what needs to be said, but who can find a new word, the best word, the most exciting, evocative and impactful word to nudge, to punt, to shake a brand new sensation into the heart of the pedestrian reader.

Charles Dickens is one of those who inspires that admiration, that awe and incredulity. I smile when I read Dickens’ novels – sometimes inappropriately through the most horrific and effecting scenes – just as I might smile when receiving a gift, because Dickens had fun with words and it’s a privilege to join in the play.

Humour is the soul of his work. Like the soul of man, it permeates a living fabric which, but for its creative breath, could never have existed.” George Gissing in ‘Charles Dickens: A Critical Study’

According to many, Charles Dickens was one of the most influential writers when it comes the shape of modern English.

“One way to measure the extent to which Dickens has enriched the lexicon is to see how often he is cited by the Oxford English Dictionary to illustrate the usage of words and phrases. Among writers quoted in the current edition of the OED, Dickens lags behind only Shakespeare, Scott, Chaucer, Milton, and Dryden for total number of citations (9,218). No one in the past two centuries comes close.” Ben Zimmer

As the most widely read Victorian author, Dickens brought the earthy slang of the times into widespread and enduring usage: sawbones and butterfingers were popularized after publication in The Pickwick Papers. Many of his own creative concoctions – words, phrases and characters’ names – have also become part of the general lexicon.

And then there is his own name. Due to the indelible mental pictures he painted, Dickensian has come to mean more than just a reference to his works, but an expression evoking the squalor and alternatively the conviviality of his representation of the Victorian era. Dickens was a master of character as well and boorishly comic people  have also been referred to as Dickensian.

Dickens had to grow up with a name that already evoked amusement, perhaps partially accounting for his unique and creative sense of humour. The use of ‘dickens‘ itself as a euphemism for fury as in, ‘we ran like the dickens’, mischief or the devil has been traced back before Charles’ time to Shakespeare and possibly beyond.

Click to examine the manuscript in high definition detail and check out the related blog post at the second link below.

Ben Zimmer’s “Not to Put Too Fine a Point Upon It”: How Dickens Helped Shape the Lexicon
Sevaan Franks “A Christmas Carol” manuscript reveals Charles Dickens’ writing process
Jonathon Green’s “Heros of Slang: Charles Dickens”
David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page
InfoBritain Charles Dickens Biography and Visits
The Victorian Web Dickens: A Brief Biography
Nonfiction Monday: A Boy Called Dickens by Deborah Hopkinson – Review of the book for Grades 2-5
Dickens 2012 Curriculum resources

Jill Krementz Covers Charles Dickens at 200 at the Morgan Library and Museum New York
*Title quote from The Old Curiosity Ship (ch. VII) by Charles Dickens

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