06 February, 2009

"What the dickens!!"

So. I have this friend who is in the orchestra of Oliver! at Drury Lane. And a friend of mine and I wanted to go along and see him, especially as he makes a *very special* onstage appearance in the Oom Pah Pah scene.

When I sent him a message expressing my general excitement at what I was certain was a DICKENS of a performance, he at first expressed confusion, and then, DENIED the existence of such a phrase, accused me of fictions, and challenged me to prove it was real.

[Norma Desmond glare] HOW DARE HE...

This is what the first message contained:

RH & myself INtend to ATtend what we hear is a fine performance indeed of Oliver[Exclamation Point], not excluding our excitement for your personal rolicking portrayal as the Oom Pah Pah accordionist (I hear it's a DICKENS of a performance... doooo... you understand why that is funny?...[NOTE: that is me poking fun at D])

Shall we meet after at roughly 5:15?

This was his reply:

MB wrote on January 31, 2009 at 15:51

RH and AS, I'm very excited you're planning to come. Be warned tho, I don't do much, I just stand there in my ARTFUL Artful Dodger hat.

Oh, and strictly speaking, I am the Oom Pah Pah CONCERTINA player. Just so that is clear. I don't want any disappointment.

Al, I don't understand why DICKENS of a performance is funny, I may need a Humbley-style explanation.

Looking forward! xxx

Then RH got involved and replied:

RH wrote on January 31, 2009 at 17: 08

-Let it be noted that he is, indeed, the Oom Pah Pah CONCERTINA player.

-"Dickens of a performance" is funny because it doubles a common turn of phrase with a reference to Charles Dickens......who wrote
Oliver Twist.... hence.......oh where's Damian when you need him?



THEN....it turned in to THIS....

MB wrote on 3 February, 2009 at 05:16

Dear comrades:

Hold on, hold ON... "Dickens of a performance" is a common turn of phrase?? Are you losing your minds???!!! Please tell me you've never heard this before or are totally having me on or making this up...

The following exchange continued. It began on 3 February, 2009 at 18:00

AL: MB. I will get to the bottom of this dickens of a mystery....
MB: You're wasting your time I tell you! it doesn't exist!
MB: You made it up i tell you!
MB: If you google "dickens of a" it comes up with nothing. Nothing at all!
AL: That is just so infuriatingly false. NOT true. It comes up with dickens of a show, dickens of crime, dickens of a meal, dickens of a blah de blah!
AL: Oh my GOD it is EVERYWHERE. Your Oliver! reviews are LADEN with this phrase I am serious. Please get with the etymological program!!

Finally, others intervened:

SF said at 6:00pm February 3
"Dickens" used to be a euphemism for the devil I believe, so probably means "a hell of a time" Hope it helps!

MH said at 6:58pm February 3
I've heard it most in "Where the Dickens is ... ?" cf. My Fair Lady. I think the minced oath for Devil is correct. It's like Christopher Columbus for Christ. Or Jiminy for Jesus. Or Golly for God.

MH spoke up again at 11:21am February 4
My curiosity piqued, I've been Googling for the last 10 minutes (thank goodness(!) I've nothing better to do) and Shakespeare uses Dickens in this way in the Merry Wives of Windsor Act III sc ii. In THE UNQUIET DEAD episode of Doctor Who David Tennant says "What the Shakespeare?!" to Charles Dickens (played by Simon Callow) which gives a nice nod to the pop etymology that it is derived from Charles Dickens.

and again at 8:39am February 5
Um, correction: it was Christopher Eccleston's Doctor not David Tennant’s.

And finally, I reserached what I always knew to be true, and replied with the following:

The origin of the phrase "dickens" is 1590–1600; apparently a fanciful use of Dicken, form of Dick, a proper name. It had nothing whatsoever to do with Charles Dickens, but rose in popularity in Victorian times with the notoriety of the famous author. It appears in Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor Act 3.2: "I can not tell what the dickens his name is."

1. - devil: a word used in exclamations of confusion; "what the devil"; "the deuce with it"; "the dickens you say"

2. A severe reprimand or expression of anger: gave me the dickens for being late.

3. Used as an intensive: "What in the dickens is that?", or, "That was a Dickens of a night!"
[Alteration of devil.]

3. Dick"ens\, n. or interj. [Perh. a contr. of the dim. devilkins.] The devil. [A vulgar euphemism.]

4. –noun
devil; deuce (usually prec. by the and often used in exclamations and as a mild imprecation): The dickens you say! What the dickens does he want?


And thus, I was vindicated, and I simply had to share this fascinating journey of Etymology and Semantics with all of you. It was a dickens of a journey.

But this brings up such an interesting point: I personally never knew that the word "dickens" did not refer directly to Charles Dickens, nor did I know it was a replacement for "devil." I learned so much from being challenged by my (diviiiiinely incorrect) comrade. Any other stories out there of Etymological fascinations?

MB: I'm paying homage to you. You are a dickens of a gal Al Silber.

... Why thank you.

* * *

*NOTE: names have been spared to protect the incorrect...
** Blatant prodding of poor D is done with absolute love and is the friendliest of banter.


  1. Had no idea "geek" was origianlly about Carnival people.

    geek:"sideshow freak," 1916, U.S. carnival and circus slang, perhaps a variant of geck "a fool, dupe, simpleton" (1515), apparently from Low Ger. geck, from an imitative verb found in North Sea Gmc. and Scand. meaning "to croak, cackle," and also "to mock, cheat." The modern form and the popular use with ref. to circus sideshow "wild men" is from 1946, in William Lindsay Gresham's novel "Nightmare Alley" (made into a film in 1947 starring Tyrone Power).

  2. As an English Lit person, this post just made my day! I too did not know that "dickens" also refers to the devil. Good to know the next time I use the phrase "Dickensian." Speaking of which, you should see (if you haven't already) Slumdog Millionaire. It is quite Dickensian! :)

  3. Lauren, I am glad it made the English Lit majors day! I juuuuuust have to interject here and make one quick distinction in case you were ever to bring it up in class, etc.

    I noted that you connected the use of the word "dickens" to "Dickensian" and just wanted there to be no confusion from my end about the fact that other than in SOUND those two words are NOT etymologically connected.

    Dickensian is a specific reference to Charles Dickens, his time period, his writings, his style. To quote the online dictionary:

    1. of Charles Dickens (1812–70), British novelist
    2. denoting poverty, distress, and exploitation, as depicted in the novels of Dickens

    -- where as the term "dickens" is what was mentioned in the post, and only coincidentally bears resemblance to the name of the author that would perpetuate the phrase almost 300 years later.

  4. oh my god i'm exhausted from just reading that! Al your brain works on OVERTIME!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. My brain hurts now Al! But very entertaining!

  6. That was funny- but I'm with Tashsher!
    However I'd like to see your Norma Desmond stare!

  7. Well done. We have to maintain all the colours of our language. I DESPISE these people who make fun of us for using words of more that 2 syllables! DESPISE them, I say!

  8. I've only one thing to say:


  9. Try scrabbling that, MH! In fact do try. Is Scrabble still crashing your computer? Can't do the Lexulous thing. Too many letters.

  10. The Concertina PlayerFebruary 09, 2009



  11. :) Once again, you solved that Dickens of a crime...

    xoxo, can't wait to see you!


  12. Hahaha, it's all so confusing isn't it? The dickens Dickensian confusion. I still don't think that was right, Ahh! Please tell me you also read those crazy English grammar and literary theory books, because that would make my day even more!

  13. This made another English major's day (and I'm usually much more of a literature than language girl)- fabulous!

  14. Amen. Dickens of a post my friend.



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