Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

"Not to Put Too Fine a Point Upon It": How Dickens Helped Shape the Lexicon

With the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens approaching (get your party hats ready for February 7th!), it's a good time to gauge the enormous impact he had on the English language. By many accounts he was the most widely read author of the Victorian era, and no writer since has held a candle to him in terms of popularity, prolificness, and influence in spreading new forms of the language — both highbrow and lowbrow.

Dickens came from a decidedly modest background, working in a boot-blacking factory as a child. He grew up to be a keen observer of the many facets and layers of British society, as well as the language that typified different social classes and walks of life. In his novels, the words from his character's mouths were carefully chosen to reflect their background and personality, often for highly satirical effect. He infused his work with the colloquial speech styles of the day, weaving them into narratives that had a deep effect on his readership.

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.

Of the Dickens citations in the OED, 258 citations are the earliest recorded by the dictionary for a particular word, and 1,586 are the earliest for a particular sense of a word. Dickens was certainly an innovative writer, but these examples are not necessarily his own coinages. As the OED continues to be revised, researchers have found earlier citations (known as "antedatings") for many of the words previously ascribed to Dickens as the first-known author. Thanks to digitized databases like Google Books, it's now relatively easy to establish that, for instance, boredom was actually used before Bleak House, conspiratorial before Little Dorritt. and dust-bin before Dombey & Son. (Those are all words occurring at the beginning of the alphabet whose entries have not been revised recently by the OED editors, so the Dickens-heavy research of the dictionary's first edition is still on display.) But even if Dickens wasn't the very first to use these terms, it's safe to say that he introduced them to an international audience and helped to make novel words commonplace, be it devil-may-care from The Pickwick Papers or on the rampage from Great Expectations.

Very often the words that Dickens ushered in were from the earthy slang associated with the working class, the theatre, or the criminal underworld, and Dickens did much to make these once "vulgar" words mainstream. Eric Partridge, in his 1933 book Slang Today and Yesterday, assessed Dickens's role in popularizing the slang of the era:

Dickens — the most read British author of the century — garnered a very large proportion of the slang current during the forty years ending in 1870, endowed much of it with a far longer life than it would otherwise have had, so popularized certain slang terms that they gained admittance to standard speech, and so imposed on the public certain slangy innovations of his own that they became general slang and then, in a few instances, were passed into the common stock.

Dickens's very first novel, The Pickwick Papers from 1837, introduced such slang terms as butter-fingers ("a clumsy person"), flummox ("bewilder"), sawbones ("surgeon"), and whizz-bang ("sound of a gunshot"). Again, some of these can now be antedated: Dickens's butter-fingers referred to a clumsy cricket player, but David Block, author of Baseball Before We Knew It, notes an American example from a year before The Pickwick Papers was published, in a verse about boys playing an early form of baseball. Similarly, the mysterious expression put the kibosh on (meaning "dispose of finally, finish off") shows up in Dickens's 1836 collection, Sketches by Boz, as an example of criminal cant. But the word researcher Stephen Goranson recently discovered an example from two years earlier. (It's still unclear where kibosh comes from: see articles by Michael Quinion and Anatoly Liberman for some theories.)

Alongside the slang that Dickens was picking up from the streets of London, he was also inserting his own creations, though few of his own more fanciful terms would catch on. In The Pickwick Papers we find comfoozled meaning "exhausted": "He's in a horrid state o' love; reg'larly comfoozled, and done over with it." And in Nicholas Nickleby (1839), he uses a peculiar euphemism for "hell": "It's all up with its handsome friend; he has gone to the demnition bow-wows." In fact, Dickens enjoyed coming up with clever euphemisms, sometimes using the names of parts of speech standing in for taboo words:

I won't, says Bark, have no adjective police and adjective strangers in my adjective premises! I won't, by adjective and substantive!
On Duty with Inspector Field in Household Words (1851)  

"But these people are," he insisted..."so," Participled, "sentimental!"
Somebody's Luggage in All Year Round (1862)

One way that Dickens devised new words was by adding suffixes to old ones. He made good use of the -y suffix to make adjectives (mildewy, bulgy, swishy, soupy, waxy, trembly) and -iness to make nouns (messiness, cheesiness, fluffiness, seediness). Sometimes the suffixing got a bit out hand: the OED finds room for metropolitaneously ("in metropolitan fashion") from an 1852 letter by Dickens, but it's marked as a "nonce word," meaning nobody other than Dickens saw fit to use it. He also had a penchant for turning nouns into verbs — some with fairly obvious meanings (corkscrew, polka, manslaughter), others a bit more unusual:

The table-covers are never taken off, except when the leaves are turpentined and bees' waxed.
Sketches by Boz (1836)

"I will not," said Fanny, without answering the question, "submit to be mother-in-lawed by Mrs. General."
Little Dorrit (1857)

Beyond individual words, Dickens was the master of the well-turned phrase, and some of his phrases have become accepted idioms. From Bleak House we get the expressions "to have/get someone's number" (meaning "to understand another person") and "not to put too fine a point upon it" (meaning "not to mince words") — the latter frequently used by the plain-speaking Mr. Snagsby. Masahiro Hori, in his book Investigating Dickens' Style: A Collocational Analysis, found that Dickens often associated certain phrasal patterns or "collocations" with particular characters. And as I mentioned in a New York Times Book Review essay on computational approaches to literary style, Hori's research also points to the ways that Dickens could breathe new life into old collocations, such as when an old lady in The Pickwick Papers "looked carving-knives at the hardheaded delinquent," a play on the expression "to look daggers at someone."

Finally, no discussion of Dickensian language would be complete without mentioning the richly evocative names of his characters. Many of the names are so memorable that they too have entered the dictionary, as allusive descriptions of people with personalities like the characters. Thus, a Scrooge (from A Christmas Carol) is a miserly "bah, humbug!" type; a Fagin (from Oliver Twist) is a trainer of young thieves; and a Micawber (from David Copperfield) is an incurable optimist. If someone is Pecksniffian, then like Seth Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit he's smarmily hypocritical, but if he's Pickwickian, then like Samuel Pickwick in The Pickwick Papers he's jovial, naive, and generous. We remember these characters even now for their apt names and for the words they spoke — both testaments to Dickens's prodigious linguistic gifts.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.