Where Does The Phrase 'What The Dickens' Come From?

M@
By M@ Last edited 7 months ago
Where Does The Phrase 'What The Dickens' Come From?

'What the Dickens?' is still used as a mild cry of surprise. It's one of several charming if dated ways of saying 'WTF?'. See also 'What the heck?', 'What the deuce?', 'What the blazes?' and 'What the devil?'.

But where does it come from? And who first coined it?

It must have something to do with Charles Dickens, right?

Not so fast.

Take a look at The Merry Wives of Windsor, written by Shakespeare in the 1590s. The Bard has Mistress Page exclaiming: 'I cannot tell what the dickens his name is...'.

In other words, the phrase was in use more than 200 years before Charles Dickens was born. It seems to predate Shakespeare too.

Word historians suggest that 'dickens' is a euphemism for The Beast, used because it sounds like the once-common alternative of 'devilkins'.

The Devil (artist's impression; no photo available).

So when you exclaim 'What the Dickens?', you're really saying 'What the devil?' and not 'What the Victorian novelist?'.

Although he had nothing to do with its origin, the enormous fame of Charles Dickens probably helped to keep the idiom in circulation. What the Dickens would we do without him?

Last Updated 28 February 2017