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Like the dickens

Q From Jan Walsh: Do you know where the phrase hurts like the dickens comes from?

A Let’s focus in on dickens as the important word here, since there are lots of different expressions with it in, such as what the dickens, where the dickens, the dickens you are!, and the dickens you say!

It goes back a lot further than Charles Dickens, though it does seem to have been borrowed from the English surname, most likely sometime in the sixteenth century or before. (The surname itself probably derives from Dickin or Dickon, familiar diminutive forms of Dick.) It was — and still is, though people hardly know it any more — a euphemism for the Devil. It’s very much in the same style as deuce, as in old oaths like what the deuce! which contains another name for the Devil.

The first person known to use it was that great recorder of Elizabethan expressions, William Shakespeare, in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “FORD: Where had you this pretty weathercock? MRS PAGE: I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of”. That pun relied on the audience knowing that Dickens was a personal name and that what the dickens was a mild oath which called on the Devil.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 11 May 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 11 May 2002.