the dickens

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the dickens

Post by Archived Topic » Wed Dec 15, 2004 8:34 pm

Origin of "like the dickens." For example, "that hurt like the dickens" or "it was raining like the dickens." I hear it periodically in Ohio and Minnesota.

Suz
Submitted by Suzanne Compton (Powell - U.S.A.)

Can anyone further the explanation on the origin of the above phrase. the dictionery lists it purely as a euphumism for "devil", however wondered whether there was more to it than that and whether the phrase refers to charles dickens and perhaps his london/thames dictionary?
Submitted by Neil Hipkins (London - England)

Hey everyone,

I've looked all over the internet and I can't find the origin of this phrase (or any "... as the dickens" saying). I know that "dickens" refers to the devil but I have no idea how it came to be used as a form of emphasis. The OED offers no assistance. Any suggestions?

Thanks,
Submitted by Cayenne (NYC - USA)
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the dickens

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Dec 15, 2004 8:47 pm

LIKE THE ~ "very much," "just a whole lot"
~ = DEVIL, DEUCE (Webster's Collegiate 1974)
Reply from dale hileman (Apple Valley, CA - U.S.A.)
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the dickens

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Dec 15, 2004 9:01 pm

Suzanne .. seems old Nick had a hand in this one >>>

The Phrase Finder

Meaning: A lot; as in 'hurts like the dickens'.

Origin: Nothing to do with Charles Dickens. Dickens is a euphemism for the word devil, possibly via devilkins. Shakespeare used it in 'the Merry Wives of Windsor: 'I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of.'

.. and >>

THE DICTIONARY OF PHRASE AND FABLE

Dickens is a perverted oath corrupted from "Nick." Mrs. Page says - "I cannot tell what the dickens his name is . . ." -


.. so there you go .. a polite blasphemy ..

WoZ of Aus 14/12/04
Reply from Wizard of Oz (Newcastle - Australia)
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the dickens

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Jan 03, 2005 5:59 am

The use of 'dickens' as a euphemism for devil is dated by various sources as being much older than the period of the Victorian novellist. For example, M-W.com gives a very precise 1598, while Websters 1913 offers a quote from Shakespeare ("I can not tell what the dickens his name is.").

So it seems your hypothesis falls - unless it can be argued that the name of Charles Dickens gave greater popularity to the expression than it might otherwise have enjoyed?
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the dickens

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Jan 03, 2005 6:09 am

“Cute as the dickens” is not mentioned in the reference below, but I believe that in our expression it also means “devil,” but in a less negative way, as in “devilish” and “mischievous” – “cute as a devil.” “You little dickens” is another expression which I always took to mean “You little devil” in the positive sense. The thing that makes me a bit wary here, though, is why this sense is not included and only the “mild oath” aspect is discussed. I would assume that Jesse Sheidlower is a very careful fellow (now an editor at OED) and I wonder if there is not some reason why he left this out.
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From The Word Maven at http://www.randomhouse.com:

Dickens is used, usually following “the,” as a euphemism for "the devil" in mild oaths having various forms.
The earliest example known is found in Shakespeare: "I cannot tell what the dickens his name is" (“Merry Wives of Windsor”). Some other examples to show you the range of use: "What a dickens is the Woman always a whimpring about Murder for?" (John Gay, “The Beggar's Opera”); "What the dickens is wrong with you?" (Stephen Crane, “The Red Badge of Courage”); "How the dickens could he let the public know how truly great his president was?" (Sinclair Lewis, “Our Mr. Wrenn”); "I thought the vein or whatever the dickens they call it was going to burst though his nose" (James Joyce, “Ulysses”); "That hurt like the dickens!" (my father, a few weeks ago).
“Dickens” is almost certainly an application of “Dicken,” a diminutive of “Dick,” itself a diminutive of the male given name “Richard,” with “dickens” and “devil” having the same initial sound. Compare the slightly later “deuce” used in the same way, or, for another example of a euphemistic use of a name with the same initial sound, the substitution of “Jehoshaphat” for “Jesus” Another example of an “altered” name as a euphemism for "devil"-type words is “Sam Hill,” as in "Who in Sam Hill are you?," an Americanism based on “Solomon” as an oath and “Hill” as a euphemism for “Hell.”
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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the dickens

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Jan 03, 2005 6:17 am

In the first example of cute as the dickens, one must understand that cute can stand for clever or sly as well as pretty. One of the great characteristics attributed to the devil is that he/she can assume whatever shape he/she needs to practice his devilish trade. Therefore, he/she could assume the guise of a cute/attractive woman to lure some poor man into marriage/walking over a cliff/to lose all his money, etc. *G* Or he/she could be clever and trick someone(even a woman)into some form of sin. Also quickness can be ascribed as in "quick as the dickens," cleverness of speech as in "the dickens you say."
Reply from Leif Thorvaldson (Eatonville - U.S.A.)
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the dickens

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Jan 03, 2005 6:22 am

Thank you Leif!

I was so focused on trying to make sense of the word "dickens" that it didn't occur to me to look up "cute". I'm embarrassed to say that I was unaware of cute's original meaning (from "acute").

So "cute as the dickens" is now commonly used to mean the opposite of what it originally meant. How strange! But I bet it's not an unusual phenomenon.
Cayenne (London - England, for the moment)
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