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