Readers may have been surprised when last week’s column failed to deal with slang usage of “dickens.”
But dickens as found in exclamations like, “What the dickens?” has nothing to do with the novelist. In fact, such usage is older than Charles Dickens. Oxford dates the slang term dickens to 1598. Charles Dickens wasn’t born until 1812.
Shakespeare used dickens colloquially in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1601), when Mrs. Page says, “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is” (III, ii, 16).
Dickens, used this way, is a euphemism for “devil.” Euphemism’s literal meaning is, “to speak with good words.” It’s from the Greek euphemismos (fair speech). We use euphemisms to replace taboo words or other expressions carrying unfortunate implications.
It’s hard to realize that only a few hundred years ago people were afraid to name the devil in case he suddenly appeared, thinking he’d been called. Consequently, all kinds of euphemisms arose to replace devil — Satan, Lucifer and Hell.
Shakespeare’s Mrs. Page was really saying, “I cannot tell what the devil his name is.”
“Go to the dickens,” means, “Go to the devil,” and, by extension, “Go to Hell.”
No one knows how devil evolved into dickens, but some interesting guesses exist.
American Heritage suggests dickens may be an alteration of Old Nick, itself a euphemism. But Old Nick entered English only in the 1700s, and there’s no good explanation for its source either.
Charles Earle Funk wonders if the original term was devilkin (little devil). He says, “Frequent usage may have worn down (devilkin) to ‘dickens.’” He adds that devilkin was often said, deilkins.
The OED also thinks devilkin a possible ancestor of dickens.
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang offers three further versions of dickens — dickings (17th-18th centuries), dickons (18th century), and dickins (19th century). But Cassells cannot explain its origin.
Late 19th century Australian/New Zealand slang used the mild oath dicken, much as the British used dickens. “Dicken on that,” meant, “The hell with that.”
Deuce is another euphemism for devil. It’s found in exclamations of surprise, impatience, or annoyance — “What the deuce happened here?”
Deuce is probably from the Low German duus (deuce; two at dice), but originates in the Latin duos (two).
Everyone knows what a deuce represents in playing cards, but may not know it also means, “bad luck; misfortune; the devil.” As a euphemism for “plague,” deuce appeared in English in 1651. It didn’t mean “devil” until 1694.
Every known language, including Modern English, has words considered taboo. Since we’re no longer terrified of conjuring up demons, we’ve begun to use euphemisms to avoid giving offense. Contemporary Usage supplies this example of modern use of euphemism:
“I used to think I was poor. Then they told me I wasn’t poor, I was needy. Then they said it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy, I was culturally deprived. Then they told me deprived was a bad image, that I was underprivileged. I still don’t have a dime — but I have a great vocabulary.”
The dickens you say!