Eight Words Invented by Charles Dickens (And One That Wasn’t)
  • 4-minute read
  • 9th June 2020

Eight Words Invented by Charles Dickens (And One That Wasn’t)

The author Charles Dickens is famous for both coining new words and popularizing terms that we now use every day. To mark the 150th anniversary of his death, we’re looking at eight words invented by Dickens… and one many people mistakenly believe he invented!

1. Abuzz (A Tale of Two Cities)

Dickens was an early adopter of “abuzz,” an adjective used to describe an environment that is alive with noise and activity. Dickens first used it in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), which included the line:

The court was all astir and a-buzz.

Nowadays, though, we write this word without the hyphen as “abuzz.”

2. Butterfingers (The Pickwick Papers)

Dickens was one of the first writers to use this term for someone who is prone to dropping things. The insult appears in The Pickwick Papers (1837), which includes the following colorful passage:

At every bad attempt at a catch, and every failure to stop the ball, he launched his personal displeasure at the head of the devoted individual in such denunciations as “Ah, ah! stupid” “Now, butter-fingers “Muff” “Humbug” and so forth.

We usually write it as “butterfingers” these days, without the hyphen.

3. The Creeps (David Copperfield)

Dickens coined the term “the creeps” to describe a shiver of horror. In David Copperfield (1850), he wrote:

She was constantly complaining of the cold, and of its occasioning a visitation in her back which she called “the creeps.”

Nowadays, we tend to say something “gives us” the creeps. For example:

I’m scared of spiders. They give me the creeps.

4. Devil-May-Care (The Pickwick Papers)

Dickens popularized the adjective “devil-may-care,” meaning “carefree” or “cheerfully reckless,” when he wrote in The Pickwick Papers:

Not that this would have worried him much, anyway — he was a mighty free and easy, roving, devil-may-care sort of person, was my uncle, gentlemen.

It’s believed to originate from the phrase “the devil may care but I don’t.”

5. Flummoxed (The Pickwick Papers)

We’ve mentioned 1837’s The Pickwick Papers twice so far, but this was clearly an innovative story for Dickens, as he also invented the word “flummoxed” there! This term first appeared in the following passage:

And my ‘pinion is, Sammy, that if your governor don’t prove a alleybi, he’ll be what the Italians call reg’larly flummoxed, and that’s all about it.

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And in case that doesn’t make it obvious, “flummoxed” means “confused.”

6. On the Rampage (Great Expectations)

While not a completely new word, dickens turned the verb “rampage” into a noun in the phrase “on the rampage.” . To “be on the rampage” is to “behave violently and destructively.” We see this in Great Expectations (1860):

She’s been on the Ram-page this last spell, about five minutes.

We write it without the capital letter or hyphen nowadays. For example:

Godzilla went on the rampage.

7. Sassigassity (A Christmas Tree)

Dickens coined this almost-portmanteau of “sassy” and “audacity,” meaning “audacity with attitude,” for his less-famous Christmas story, A Christmas Tree (1850), which included the passage:

The devoted dog of Montargis avenges the death of his master, foully murdered in the Forest of Bondy; and a humorous Peasant … remarks that the sassigassity of that dog is indeed surprising.

Sadly, neither the term nor the book caught the public imagination. But we’re still grateful for A Christmas Carol, particularly the Muppet version.

8. Sawbones (The Pickwick Papers)

One more from The Pickwick Papers? Why not! After all, that is where Dickens popularized the word “sawbones,” which was slang for a surgeon in Victorian England. In the story, a character says:

I thought everybody know’d as a sawbones was a surgeon.

It’s not a good idea to call a surgeon “sawbones” today, though.

Charles Dickens and the Origins of “Boredom”

Finally, let us conclude on a word that many people have claimed Charles Dickens invented, but which is actually older. The story is that he invented the word “boredom” in 1853 for Bleak House. But this word first appeared in print 24 years earlier, in 1829, in a newspaper called The Albion:

Neither will I follow another precedental mode of boredom, and indulge in a laudatory apostrophe to the destinies which presided over my fashioning.

As such, we’re not sure Charles can claim this one! But he definitely had a big influence on English. And if you’re feeling inspired by Dickens to start writing, don’t forget that we have proofreaders and editors available 24/7.

Comments (4)
Otto Kerrect
9th June 2020 at 20:21
Sassigassity, to me, was a cheeky version of sagacity. My dog additionally had a gassiness about him.
    Proofed
    10th June 2020 at 15:52
    An interesting interpretation! The "audacity" meaning here does seem to be the main one people cite (e.g., this New York Times article), but Dickens coined the term and only used it once (that we know of), so we'll probably never have a definitive answer to the question.
david
24th December 2021 at 18:21
what about the words that were derived from his (dickens) famous characters. For example: Pickwickian, Podsnapian and Pecksniffian? I am sure there are more and is what I was actually looking for. Most of these are in your better dictionaries.
    Proofed
    4th January 2022 at 11:20
    Hi, David. There are certainly plenty of words inspired by Dickens and his writing (not least "Dickensian"). But this post was about words he used in his writing, which I don't believe was the case for any of the terms you mention. Hope that clarifies things slightly! If you'd like to see a post on words inspired by Dickens, let us know and I'm sure we can do something on that topic at some point!

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