Words Invented by Dickens

Dickens was a prolific writer  —  during his career, he wrote 26 major works and hundreds of other minor works, including short stories, sketches, articles, speeches, plays, poetry, and letters. Through his major novels, he introduced the world to hundreds of captivating characters with droll and evocative names — Copperfield, Cratchit, Fezziwig, Havisham, Micawber, Pickwick, Scrooge, Squeers, Turveydrop and Twist to name just a few.

The total number of words used in all of Dickens’s work is an astounding 4.6 million. What the Dickens! No wonder he is the sixth most cited writer (9,218 total citations) in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) right behind Shakespeare, Scott, Chaucer, Milton, and Dryden. As lexicographer Ben Zimmer notes in an engaging and insightful article, the OED lists 258 first-citations (first recorded use) for new words by Dickens, and 1,586 first-citations for the new sense of a word (eg, turning nouns into verbs) by Dickens. Ongoing research by lexicographers now proves that Dickens did not coin all of these words; but as the most-read British author of the 19th century, he certainly introduced many original words and phrases to readers around the world. In effect, Dickens helped these words and phrases become part of the standard English lexicon. Zimmer also cites Eric Partridge’s Slang Today (1933) that focuses on how Dickens masterfully incorporated the slang of the working class and criminal world into his novels. In many cases, Dickens transformed those slang words into acceptable, commonly-used words.

It is interesting to compare the impact of another British author writing some 250 years earlier. The complete works of Shakespeare consists of 884,647 words. With less than 1/5 of the volume of the Dickens corpus, Shakespeare manages to use 31,534 different or unique words — of those, he invented about 1,700 English words and phrases. And unlike many of Dickens’s neologisms, there are no earlier uses recorded for the Bard’s 1,700 contributions to the English language. In other words, Shakespeare did not merely introduce or popularize the words, he irrefutably invented them. Clearly, Shakespeare’s use and mastery of the English language affirms his genius — it has been suggested that the Bard’s vocabulary was 66,534 words (compared with the average vocabulary size of 17,000 words of a modern day college-educated speaker).

Dickens’s contributions to literature and the English language are, nonetheless, indisputable — a testimony to his vivid imagination and linguistic talent; and just like his characters, the words he introduced are remarkably memorable — and shall we say — Dickensian. (Incidentally, that word first appeared in print on March 19, 1881 in The Athenaeum, a journal of English and Foreign Literature.)

Artful Dodger: noun. A con artist or street thief. First appears in Oliver Twist (1837), as Jack Dawkins’s nickname.

Bah Humbug: interjection. An exclamation of irritation or disgust. First appeared in A Christmas Carol (1843).

Boredom: noun. The state of feeling disinterested. First appeared in Bleak House (1852).  (Although the OED cites Dickens as the earliest use, lexicographers have found earlier uses of the word and its variant, boreism, as early as 1841)

Bumbledom: noun. Inflexibility, inefficiency or arrogance shown by a petty official. Based on Mr. Bumble, head of a workhouse. First appeared in Oliver Twist (1837).

Chadband: noun. An obsequious hypocrite. Based on Mr. Chadband, a preacher. First appeared in Bleak House (1852).

Dolly Varden: noun. A print dress with large flower pattern and drawn up in loops; a large hat with flowers and one side bent down; a species of trout. First appeared in Barnaby Rudge (1841).

Doormat: noun. Used metaphorically, a person who is treated poorly. First appears in Great Expectations (1861)

Fagin: noun. Someone who trains children in crime. First appeared in Oliver Twist (1837).

Flummox: verb. To bewilder. First appeared in Pickwick Papers (1836-7). (Although the OED cites Dickens as the earliest use, lexicographers have found earlier uses in obscure works in 1835.)

Gamp: noun. A large umbrella. First appeared in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843)

Ghost of Christmas Past: noun. Something that returns, after a long absence, to remind someone of their forgotten past. First appeared in A Christmas Carol (1843).

Gradgrind: noun. Someone who is hard and cold, interested only in facts and not human emotions. First appeared in Hard Times (1854).

Havisham: noun or adjective. A reclusive woman, a bitter jilted bride. First appeared in Great Expectations (1861).

Heavens: adverb. An intensifier meaning extremely. First appeared in “House to Let: Going into Society,” Household Words (1858).

Marley’s Ghost: noun. Something or someone that returns to haunt a person. Also a person that is held by chains, literally or figuratively. First appeared in A Christmas Carol (1843).

Micawber: noun. A poor person who is optimistic, hoping for a better future. Based on Wilkins Micawber. First appeared in David Copperfield (1849).

Pecksniff: noun and adjective. An ingratiating preachy hypocrite; an individual who interferes in the business of others. First appeared in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843).

Pickwickian: adjective. 1. Marked by simplicity and kindness. 2. Use of an expression meant or understood in an idiosyncratic way so as not to be offensive. Based on Samuel Pickwick. First appeared in The Pickwick Papers (1836).

Podsnappery: noun. An attitude of detached complacency or pompous self-satisfaction and condescension.  Based on John Podsnap. First appeared in Our Mutual Friend (1865).

Rampage: noun. Destructive or violent behavior by person or group. First appeared in Great Expectations (1860).

Red Tape: noun. Excessive regulation that prevents progress. First appeared in Bleak House (1852).

Round the clock: adverb and adjective. All day and all night. First appeared in Bleak House (1852).

Sandwich Board: A pair of advertising boards suspended from a person’s shoulders. First described in Sketches by Boz (1839)

Sawbones: noun. Slang for a surgeon or doctor. First appeared in The Pickwick Papers (1836-7).

Scrooge: noun. A mean, miserly person. Also a person who undergoes a transformation in character (from bad to good). Based on Ebenezer Scrooge. First appeared in A Christmas Carol (1843). Read What is the Origin of Scrooge?
Turveydrop: noun. A person who has manners, but is lazy and vain. Based on Mr. Turveydrop. Based on First appeared in Bleak House (1852).
Uriah Heep: noun. A sycophant, a person who is excessively obsequious and insincere, professing to be humble; a sycophant. Based on Uriah Heep, a clerk to Mr. Wickfield. First appeared in David Copperfield (1849).


Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers
Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work (The Literary A to Z Series)
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable 19th Edition

For further reading: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition edited by John Simpson and Edmund Weiner, Oxford University Press (1991). Brewers Dictionary of Phrase & Fable edited by John Ayto, Collins Reference (2006). Charles Dickens A to Z by Paul Davis, Facts on File (2012). The Dord, The Diglot, and an Avocado or Two by Anu Garg, Plume (2007). Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens edited by Paul Schlicke, Oxford University Press (1994). Statistical Reasoning for Everyday Life, Bennett, Briggs, Triola, Addison Wesley Longman (2002). Investigating Dickens’ Style: A Collocational Analysis by Masahiro Hori, Palgrave Macmillan (2004). Adonis to Zorro: The Oxford Dictionary of Reference and Allusion by Andrew Delahunty and Sheila Dignen, Oxford University Press (2010). Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers by Paul Dickson, Bloomsbury (2014).
Folger Shakespeare Library, folger.edu


4 thoughts on “Words Invented by Dickens

    • Hi John, good question. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first usage was on March 19, 1881 in The Athenaeum, a journal of English and Foreign Literature. Cheers, Alex

  1. Pingback: Guest Blog: Why Read Dickens? | Interesting Literature

  2. Excellent post – really fascinating stuff and the sort of thing readers of my own little blog would find of great interest. I might venture to add ‘whoosh’ to this tremendous list: I believe Dickens is credited by the OED with its first use, in a letter of 1858.

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