Dickensian Soup: 11 Words from Charles Dickens

by Angela Tung on February 7, 2013

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Charles Dickens

Two hundred and one years ago today, English writer Charles Dickens was born. The prolific author’s inventive character names have given rise to many words now common in the English language, and he has been credited with the coining of dozens of words.

While some of these words have been antedated – for example, an earlier citation of boredom, long credited to Dickens, has been found – there’s no denying the author’s role popularizing words that may have disappeared into obscurity. Today we round up 11 of our favorites.

abuzz

“The court was all astir and a-buzz, when the black sheep—whom many fell away from in dread—pressed him into an obscure corner among the crowd.”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

Dickens was one of the first authors to use abuzz, “characterized by excessive gossip or activity.” Another “early adopter” of the word was George Eliot, who used it in her 1859 novel, Adam Bede: “I hate the sound of women’s voices; they’re always either a-buzz or a-squeak.”

creeps, the

“She was constantly complaining of the cold, and of its occasioning a visitation in her back which she called ‘the creeps‘.”

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, 1850

You may be surprised to know the modern-sound phrase, the creeps, “a feeling of fear and revulsion,” was coined by Dickens. He may have been influenced by the sense creepy, “chilled and crawling, as with horror or fear,” which originated around 1831.

devil-may-care

“Not that this would have worried him much, anyway—he was a mighty free and easy, roving, devil-may-care sort of person, was my uncle, gentlemen.”

Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, 1837

Devil-may-care, meaning “reckless; careless,” or “jovial and rakish in manner,” seems to come from the saying, “The devil may care but I don’t.”

flummox

“And my ‘pinion is, Sammy, that if your governor don’t prove a alleybi, he’ll be what the Italians call reg’larly flummoxed, and that’s all about it.”

Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, 1837

To flummox means “to confuse; perplex.” The origin is probably an English dialectal word which Dickens brought back into popularity. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the formation of the word “seems to be onomatopoeic, expressive of the notion of throwing down roughly and untidily; compare flump, hummock, dialect slommock sloven.”

gonoph

“He’s as obstinate a young gonoph as I know.”

Charles Dickens, Bleak House, 1853

Gonoph is slang for a pickpocket or thief. The word comes from gannabh, the Hebrew word for “thief.” Dickens’s seems to be the earliest recorded usage of the word in English.

gorm

“It appeared, in answer to my inquiries, that nobody had the least idea of the etymology of this terrible verb passive to be gormed; but that they all regarded it as constituting a most solemn imprecation.”

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, 1850

Gorm is “a vulgar substitute for (God) damn,” according to the OED. In the television show, Fireflygorram is a common expletive,  presumably a corruption of goddamn. Whether or not the show’s creators were influenced by Dickens is unknown.

lummy

“To think of Jack Dawkins—lummy Jack—the Dodger—the Artful Dodger—going abroad for a common twopenny-halfpenny sneeze-box!”

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, 1839

Lummy is slang for “knowing; cute,” or “first-rate,” and probably comes from lumme, a corruption of “(Lord) love me,” according to the OED. Lummy is another Dickens-coined word that has fallen into obscurity, though we would like to see it make a comeback.

on the rampage

“When I got home at night, and delivered this message for Joe, my sister ‘went on the Rampage,’ in a more alarming degree than at any previous period.”

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 1860

The phrase on the rampage comes from the earlier verb form of rampage, “to act or move in a ramping manner; spring or rush violently; rage or storm about.” The word rampage may come from ramp, “to rise for a leap or in leaping, as a wild beast; rear or spring up; prepare for or make a spring; jump violently.”

red tapeworm

“If in any convenient part of the United Kingdom, (we suggest the capital as the centre of resort,) a similar museum could be established, for the destruction and exhibition of the Red-Tape-Worms with which the British Public are so sorely afflicted, there can be no doubt that it would be, at once, a vast national benefit, and a curious national spectacle.”

Charles Dickens, Household Words, 1851

A red tapeworm is, according to the OED, “a person who adheres excessively to official rules and formalities.” The phrase plays off red tape and tapeworm, and was coined by Dickens in Household Words, a weekly magazine he edited.

Red tape, slang for “the collection or sequence of forms and procedures required to gain bureaucratic approval for something, especially when oppressively complex and time-consuming,” comes from the English practice of using red or pink tape to tie official documents. The figurative sense arose around 1736, says the OED. A tapeworm is a ribbonlike parasite.

Some call a phrase like red tapeworm a sweet tooth fairy, “three words where the first and second form a known expression and the second and third form a known expression and all three together make a credible expression.”

sawbones

“‘What! Don’t you know what a sawbones is, sir?’ inquired Mr. Weller. ‘I thought everybody know’d as a sawbones was a surgeon.’”

Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, 1837

Sawbones is slang for a surgeon or doctor. Before the advent of anesthesia in 1846, speed was of the essence for surgeons. With a saw like the one pictured in this article, Victorian physicians could amputate a leg in half a minute.

whiz-bang

“‘Present! think I was; fired a musket—fired with an idea—rushed into wine shop—wrote it down—back again—whiz, bang—another idea—wine shop again—pen and ink—back again—cut and slash—noble time, Sir. Sportsman, sir?’ abruptly turning to Mr. Winkle.”

Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, 1836

Whiz-bang in this example means something “very rapid and eventful; rushed,” and is imitative  of something that moves quickly, or whizzes, and perhaps lands with a bang.

During World War I, whiz-bang came to refer to “the shell of a small-calibre high-velocity German gun, so called from the noise it made,” according to the OED. By 1916, the term referred to “a resounding success,” and in 1960, a type of firecracker.

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by USM MS photos]

Geoffrey Brookman February 16, 2013 at 8:13 am

I assume Gorm has some relation to gormless, used to describe someone as pathetic.
Also, I believe “On the rampage” means alert and ready, if not looking for battle as a soldier would have needed to be on the ramparts of a castle he was defending.
Lumme was used as an expletive like Blimey, indicating surprise and perhaps concern.

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