Skip to main content

How did Dickens change the English language?


Among writers quoted in the current edition of the OED, Dickens lags behind only Shakespeare, Scott, Chaucer, Milton, and Dryden for total number of citations (9,218). No one in the past two centuries comes closeSource

After Shakespeare, Charles Dickens has been the most influential writer in the English language. One area where this influence is most strongly felt is in the area of vocabulary.

Perhaps his most crucial role has been in popularising words which were previously been obscure. 'Dustbin' was in existence before 'Dombey and Son' and boredom precedes Bleak House - but without these novels they may not have come into common usage.

Slang


Dickens was also one of the first writers to employ popular slang. His first novel The Pickwick Papers (1837) introduced butter-fingers ("a clumsy person"), flummox ("bewilder"). In modern British English they are what might be termed polite slang terms ('I was flummoxed by that question in the exam').

New Words


Another feature of Dickens' use of language is the way he uses existing words to create new ones. He is particularly creative in converting adjectives to nouns: messy to messiness and creepy to the creeps (see below). 

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 

She was constantly complaining of the cold, and of its occasioning a visitation in her back which she called 'the creeps'.   
— Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, 1837

Dickens also invented new words, but most of these purely manufactured neologisms - like comfoozled - have not survived. 

New idioms

Linguistically this was where - not to put to fine a point on it (Mr Snagsby in Bleak House) - Dickens displays his genius. The phrase 'I've got his number' (meaning I understand how he's trying to fool us) has a very contemporary feel but again we can trace it back to the interminable legal machinations in Bleak House.

Character names

No novelist has been more inventive in this area. Dickens used names to evoke character: Scrooge, Mr Micawber, Uriah Heep, Oliver Twist, Fagin, Pecksniff and many more names still resonate in the language

 The Christmas Carol Teaching Pack  (£4.99
English FAQ Teaching Resource Pack (£1.99)

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Which countries do not have an official language?

According to Henry Hitchings Language Wars (2011) these nations do not currently have an official primary language:

Why is English not the official language of England?

58 countries list English as an official language - but not the UK.