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Matthew Pearl

Matthew Pearl

Posted: November 24, 2009 11:32 AM

Are You Dickensian?

What's Your Reaction:

The world around us has become more Dickensian lately. At least that's how it seems by the way the word circulates.

Put it into a Google news search, and you'll see a sampling. Here's what I got when I did:

Dickensian waif

Dickensian melodrama

Dickensian boarding school

Dickensian evening

Dickensian Christmases

Dickensian schemes

Dickensian arm-loss (!)

Dickensian nightmare (of American health care)

You might even be Dickensian without having realized it.

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us the word came into use in the 1880s and defines it as: "of or pertaining to Charles Dickens or his style."

Recently it could also have been defined as "of or pertaining to The Wire or Bernie Madoff," both of which were pasted to the word for the last few years.

I wonder who uses the word more, Americans or the British. I'd guess Americans. The word may be the equivalent of an English accent, which we Americans tend to think raises IQ points, a tendency that in turn makes the British question our IQs. Surprisingly, it was not an American but a British company that opened an amusement park in 2007 called Dickens World, located in the English county of Kent, complete with an Ebenezer Scrooge Haunted House, a Great Expectations Boat Ride and the as-advertised "costumed Dickensian characters." Seriously.

Alongside "Dickensian," the OED lists "Dickensy" as one of the original words used for the same meaning, but now in disuse. That word would probably be less tempting to use so often because it doesn't make you sound as smart. "Yes, I agree this movie is very Dickensy."

When it comes to referring to Dickens's life, performing plays with your nine children for friends and family during Christmas is Dickensian. Banishing your wife from the family estate while beginning a romance with an eighteen-year-old actress also counts as Dickensian.

Considering what a prolific writer Dickens was, the word Dickensian could legitimately cover a vast thematic territory, explaining at least some of the variety of its applications. It's probably most often used for social issues, as in some of the Googled examples. Yet we don't tend to read Dickens's pure social novels that much anymore, such as Hard Times, at least not voluntarily.

Dickens's final book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, forms the jumping-off point for my new novel, The Last Dickens. This last work by Dickens has very little social commentary, and a pretty tightly efficient storyline and cast of characters. Not necessarily what we think of when we think what characterizes Dickens.

He died while the novel was still being serialized and it remains incomplete, so we don't know how it would have ended. Thousands of articles and hundreds of books have been written speculating on the ending, with different camps heatedly arguing over it. After years of making a study of his final novel, I can state one thing with certainty about how it would have ended: it would have been really really Dickensian.

Make a point of using the word Dickensian in a sentence today. See how people respond, and whether they take its meaning for granted. Report back results below!

 
 
 

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