Being a literary giant, I am obliged to hold a weekly ‘Meet the Author’ session where I sign autographs, hand out freebies and so on. At the most recent event, the clamour for another article on the origins of a saying was so great that I had to be escorted from the room by security. I admit that it has been a while since we’ve had one, but luckily I just happen to have something that might be of interest to my fans.
I always thought the answer to this one was obvious, until I looked into it. The phrase in question is What the Dickens? I think it’s widely known in the English speaking world, but, just in case, it is used to denote puzzlement, astonishment etc. Surely, you cry, it’s to do with Charles Dickens or one of his novels? No, I reply to you gently but firmly. That can’t be the answer because it appears much earlier – in the work of Britain’s greatest literary figure (yes, even greater than me or Dickens) William Shakespeare. (He might be greater than me, but at least I know how to spell my own name. Just saying.)
The earliest known use of the phrase in question appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which Mistress Page says: ‘I cannot tell what the dickens his name is…’. But Shakespeare didn’t necessarily coin it, and it may have been long-established even then for all we know.
The most widely held and likely explanation is that it was used as a euphemism for ‘what the devil…’. There are many such terms for avoiding either blasphemy or giving offence, such as ‘Gee!’ which derives from ‘Jesus!’
Why ‘devil’ should become ‘dickens’ in particular, though, is a mystery. There are several theories, but the truth is that the answer has been lost in the mists of time.