One of the readers of my piece yesterday on Dickens has sent me a list of words that came from Dickens and are now in the English language. These are:
Wellerism, from Sam Weller, Mr. Pickwick’s servant (in Pickwick Papers), meaning making fun of clichés often by taking them literally. For example (when serving lunch): “Now, gen’l'm’n, ‘fall on, as the English said to the French when they fixed bagginets.”
Fagin, from the receiver of stolen goods (in Oliver Twist), meaning an adult who instructs children in crime. Fagin is trying to turn Oliver into a thief. Dickens got the name from a friend when he was working in the blacking factory, but the character is based on the real-life fence Ikey Solomon. I suspect most of us today would feel uncomfortable using the term because of the anti-Semitic undertones (not very “under” in the David Lean film, with Alec Guinness as Fagin).
Gamp, from Mrs. Gamp’s brolly in Martin Chuzzlewit.
Gradgrind, from the headmaster in Hard Times, meaning someone who is coldly after the facts and nothing else.
Scrooge—I will leave that as an exercise for the reader!
To this list I would add:
Pickwickian, meaning using a word in a very odd way (probably quite contrary to its normal use), from Pickwick Papers. Working from memory, I think it was two characters in the Pickwick Club who had called each other “fellow,” and harmony was restored by agreeing that the term was meant in a Pickwickian sense.
Pecksniffian, from Martin Chuzzlewit, referring to Mr. Pecksniff, an unctuous hypocrite, and meaning just that.
Do readers have any other names to offer?
Incidentally, picking up on some of the comments on what I wrote, I would certainly put Martin Chuzzlewit high on my list of beloved Dickens novels, if not as high as some. I confess that I completely forgot A Tale of Two Cities, which in itself perhaps says something. My recollection is that it is a good yarn but not a great book; but I could be wrong and this is a spur to look again. I did not much care for Hard Times, but it may be because, being short, it was rather turned into the “Dickens set book” for courses. Perhaps also the social stuff attracted teachers if not students. Risking the wrath of many, I rather think of Hard Times along with the novels of George Eliot—a bit too earnest for my taste. (I love Trollope, perhaps because he is not preachy.)
And what about the lower-rank Dickens novels? Although there are great bits, I would put Old Curiosity Shop and Nicholas Nickleby in this group. It is a while since I read Barnaby Rudge, and I do remember enjoying it. Time to get at it again. Indeed, in this Dickens year it seems that I have a lot of homework to do, and being the swot that I am, that suits me just fine.