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How did Dickens change the English language?

Charles Dickens has more citations (9,218) in the Oxford English Dictionary than any writer in the century and a half since his death.  Source

Like Shakespeare, Dickens popularised words which were previously unused or obscure. 'Dustbin' was in existence before Dombey and Son, for example, while 'boredom' precedes Bleak House. 


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.

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