Whether it’s something you have a dickens of a time doing or something is happening like the dickens, most people don’t give a second thought as to what the dickens are in the first place. What people do know is that the dickens seems to mean a lot.
The Chicago Tribune ran an article on December 8, 2015 titled, “How Kitchen Tools Revolutionized American Cooking” written by Megan McArdle. The article began with introducing readers to centenarian Chuck Williams who passed away on December 5. Were it not for his trip to France in the 1950s, many of the fancy kitchen gadgets that are part of the kitchen arsenal may not have found their way into American kitchens as early as they did. In the article, the writer shared this with readers:
I mean, yes, I know how to chop onions just fine. But doing so makes me cry like the dickens, unless I wear goggles.
A little over a hundred years ago, the idiom was found in literature including Issue No. 604 of the Secret Service series titled, “The Bradys’ Chinese Clew or The Secret Dens of Pell Street” by A New York Detective (that was the only identity given the author” and published August 19, 1910. The publisher, Frank Tousey, was located in Union Square in New York City. The words were used in this passage:
“Sit down,” replied Old King Brady. “You are terribly wet, my boy.”
“Yes, it’s raining like the dickens.”
“Won’t you have something to eat? A cup of coffee. You get good coffee here.”
The boy sat down with a shudder.
In 1852, London publishers, Hope and Co., on Great Marlborough Street, published a book by the author Eireeneespaid’ published a book with an equally strange title, “Eireeneespaid’ Agathoontegigantaisophilos, the Good Natured Giant.” This passage in the story used the dickens three times to make its point.
Absorbed in his own thoughts, he struggled on unconscious for a little while, though something or other, ever and anon, gave a nudge at the calf of his leg. The outward man at length gave the alarm. “What the dickens?” (it was an old expression of surprise handed down from his ancestors, but without any explanatory note or comment) “what the dickens?” He put his hand to his attacked calf; it was a fat calf, a very fat calf, of course, Mr. Jarvis being a very fat man. There was tangibly a sort of slimy moisture on the surface, “What the dickens?”
Some will insist that the idiom has to do with English writer and social critic, Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) but history easily disproves this. Even if one disregards what Eireeneespaid’ wrote in his book in 1852, it’s difficult to believe that the idiom was an oblique reference to Charles Dickens.
Yes, it’s true that he wrote and published “A Christmas Carol” in 1843 and that the last name of the story’s main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is used to describe miserly people, the same cannot be said of Charles Dickens’s last name.
INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: In 1840 the U.S. Federal Census Data showed that Dickens families were found mostly in Tennessee and New York. By 1920, the Dickens families were found mostly in Tennessee and North Carolina. The dickens you say!
In Volume 2 of “The Humourist: Being Essays Upon Several Subjects” in the essay titled, “Of Hopers” the idiom is used. The book, published in 1725, predates Charles Dickens’s birth by nearly a century so it’s a fact that the dickens used in any form obviously has nothing to do with Charles Dickens. The author of this collection of essays is identified as John Thomas Hope, however, he is also identified elsewhere as Thomas Gordon.
He would needs make me seat my self in his own Place within the Chimney, an Honour which I was at first determin’d to decline ; but I found him invincible in his Complaisance: Pugh, said he, you are too modest, Sir you don’t know me ; what the Dickens! Have not I been whip’d at the Cart’s Tail too?
In Cocker’s “English Dictionary” compiled by scrivener and engraver Edward Cocker (1631– 22 August 1676), identified as the late famous practitioner in Writing and Arithmetick, with the second edition published in 1715 by John Hawkins. The first edition, published in 1704 also included the dickens. The following definition is provided for the word dickens.
Dickens, a Corruption of Devilkins, or little Devils; as, the Dickens take you.
INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Edward Cocker was mentioned by Samuel Pepys (23 February 1633 – 26 May 1703) in 1664, who described him as “very ingenious and well read in all our English poets.” When Edward Cocker died in 1675, it’s said that his last poem was titled, “Cocker’s Farewell To Brandy.” The poem contained these lines:
Here lyes one dead, by Brandy’s might power,
Who the last quarter of the last flown hour,
As to his health and strength, was sound and well
In Act III, Scene ii in “The Merry Wives Of Windsor” by William Shakespeare (April 1564 – 23 April 1616) takes place on a street where Mistress Page and Robin (the page to Sir John Falstaff) are met by Ford (a gentleman living at Windsor). The play was written in 1597 and published in 1602.
Well met, Mistress Page. Whither go you?
Truly, sir, to see your wife. Is she at home?
Ay; and as idle as she may hang together, for want of company. I think, if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.
Be sure of that — two other husbands.
Where had you this pretty weather-cock?
I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of. What do you call your knight’s name, sirrah?
Sir John Falstaff.
Sir John Falstaff!
Around the same time of Shakespeare’s play, the play “Edward The Fourth” by English playwright, actor, and author Thomas Heywood (1575 – 16 August 1641), published in 1599, also used the term. In Act III, scene i, Hobs, the Tanner of Tamworth and the Duchess share this exchange.
Do you demand what’s dear? Marry, corn and cow-hides. Mass, a good nug lass, well like my daughter Nell. I had rather than a band of leather she and I might smouch together.
Cam’st thou not down the wood?
Yes, mistress; that I did.
And sawest thou not the deer imbost?
By my hood, ye make me laugh. What the dickens? Is it love that makes ye prate to me so fondly? By my father’s soul, I would I had job’d faces with you.
Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the dickens, however, since it was used by both William Shakespeare and Thomas Heywood in their respective plays, it indicates that the dickens was common usage at the time. This puts the dickens to at least the mid-1500s.