A phrase from the archives today…Original post published 2/20/2017
Another special request today, though there isn’t quite as much information on it as there was on last week’s . . .
The question was where the expression “the dickens” comes from.
Well, the answer’s a bit unclear. What we know is that it’s an English last name, taken from Richard. We’re not sure which Richard, or why the name became an exclamation; Shakespeare used the expression “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is.” (“Merry Wives of Windsor” Act 3, Scene 2), in which it’s clear that it’s a substitute for “the devil.” As for why? [Insert shrug here] Best guess by the Oxford English Dictionary is that it’s simply because it sounds similar.
There’s another bit of history surrounding it too, to account for some of its early uses. Apparently, in the 1500s there was a maker of wooden bowls who was rather infamous for losing money, to the degree that much literature of the 1500s would refer to bad investments as “bad as Dickens.”
Whatever the why, modern readers can be assured it has nothing to do with the Dickens with whom we are most familiar–Charles–as it predates him by several hundred years. 😉