Charles Dickens didn’t exactly have a dirty pen. This, after all, was the man who promised his delicate Victorian readers that he would “banish from the lips” of all his characters “any expression that could by possibility offend.”
Not the easiest of promises to make because, let’s face it, the Victorians were easily offended.
Case in point: These were the people who cringed over the word “trousers,” because men’s pants were worn a little too close to a certain tabooed male appendage for comfort. But, by and large, Dickens kept his promise like a classy gent, never using outright profanity in any of his 15 novels. But Dickens was obsessed with capturing reality in all of his writings. It just took a bit of cleverness to pull it off, to politely wiggle his way out of that very tight corset of Victorian censorship, and here are a few examples of how he did it:
[Mr. Peggotty] swore a dreadful oath that he would be “Gormed” if…[his generosity] was ever mentioned again. — David Copperfield
It’s the most famous and talked-about curse word in Dickens’s oeuvre. In the Dickensian universe, this is as profane as profanity gets — despite the fact that no one in that universe seems to know what this “dreadful oath” actually signifies. The long-standing theory, popularized by the OED, is that Dickens invented the word “gormed” as an even milder substitute for “gosh-darned.” Yes, they do share the same first and last letter, but Dickens played his delicate game with profanity even safer than that. Rather than inventing the word (and thus having to later defend it), Dickens built “gormed” on an actual, though obscure, English word. The verb “to gorm” once meant to “to stare blankly, vacantly” at something, likely related to the Irish gom, “a stupid-looking person.” Dickens’s “gormed” thus could be safely translated as something more like “confounded, stupefied” — hardly a swear word at all — and bearing no trace of any attack on the Almighty.
2. What the Deuce!
If the Victorians were squeamish about taking God’s name in vain, they had an equal dread of mentioning the devil’s. Sort of an awkward prohibition for them, as swearing by the devil tripped way too easily off most Victorian tongues. Their one acceptable remedy — euphemisms.
Almost every questionable word, circa 19th century, had its polite substitute (one of the acceptable euphemisms for “trousers” was, in fact, “inexpressibles”). And most convenient of all, the devil had his own choice euphemism — namely the word “deuce” — nonchalantly inserted into popular period phrases such as “What the deuce!” and “The deuce and all!” — expressions that Dickens used freely and frequently in his writing. There’s a lot of speculation on how “deuce” acquired its devilish reputation and, moreover, why it was acceptable to Victorian sensibilities. Simple answer, no one really knows.
3. I’ll be De’ed
If Dickens had a favorite indecent oath, it would have been the oh-so-versatile D-word. That’s, more or less, exactly how Dickens referred to it in his writing, as “D” something or other. That might seem cute and childish to us today, but even by dropping three letters of a four-letter word, Dickens was dangerously skirting the fringes of Victorian decency. Everyone knew what he meant and he probably lost a few of his more prudish fans over momentary lapses of censorship like these:
He flung out in his violent way, and said, with a D, “Then do as you like.”
— Great Expectations
“Capital D her!” burst out Caroline…“I’ll give her a touch of the temper that I keep!”
— “Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings”
He says…that he’ll be de’ed if he doesn’t think he looks younger than he did ten years ago.
— “The Old Couple”
4. Oh, Merdle!
Dickens’s character names are among the most brilliant and quirky creations in English literature.
Fantastically conceptualized names such as Scrooge, Pecksniff, and Bumble read and sound like perfect incarnations of who and what these characters are at their core. And sometimes it isn’t pretty. Nowhere more so than with the ignominious Dickensian duo with a swear word hidden in both their names — Mr. Merdle from Little Dorrit and Mr. Murdstone from David Copperfield.
Didn’t catch the dirty pun? Perhaps it will help by explaining that Dickens was a Francophile for most of his life, reveling in all things French, especially the language, which he gushingly described as “Celestial.” But even celestial tongues have their crudities and Dickens would have known one of its most popular: merde, literally “excrement,” the French equivalent of our s-word. And boy did that word came in handy for Dickens! Nothing sums up Mr. Merdle’s character better than saying that he is, well, full of merde. He’s one of literature’s biggest financial fakes, erecting the Victorian equivalent of a massive Ponzi scheme that ends up ruining countless investors. The same goes for Mr. Murdstone, though his poop-fullness is of a different sort. Namely, Murdstone is convinced that “all children” are “a swarm of little vipers” needing to be relentlessly beaten into submission.
5. Bleepin’ Grammar
Avid readers of Dickens often get the feeling that Boz routinely got bored with having to perform this prim circumlocution with profanity. It’s obvious that sometimes he simply didn’t want to invent a curse word, swap in a euphemism, or use a clever pun, sometimes he just wanted to let his seedier characters say exactly what they mean — to let that loose old language rip. And actually, on occasion, he did exactly that by doing what TV producers do today. He bleeped out bad words (but kept in the bleeps, of course, so we wouldn’t be robbed of all the fun). Dickens’s “bleeps” are actually quite funny indeed, relying on innocuous grammatical terminology to delicately remind his readership that not everybody spoke with such polite decorum, that some Victorian characters’ “parts of speech are of an awful sort.” Here comically recorded in Dickens’s article on crime, “On Duty with Inspector Field:”
I won’t, says Bark, have no adjective police and adjective strangers in my adjective premises! I won’t, by adjective and substantive! Give me my trousers, and I’ll send the whole adjective police to adjective and substantive!
Notice Dickens’s rare slip-up with the use of “trousers.” A double indecency!
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: In the age of Google and Wikipedia, reference books seem anachronistic, but some have not been superseded by the internet in their usefulness and convenience and even in their ability to divert and entertain. What is the one reference book you couldn’t live without?Andrew: It doesn’t fit on my bookshelves, and it dwarfs everything on my coffee table, so when not in use, I stand it up on the floor, where it leans casually against a pillar near my stereo speaker. Big, blue and glossy, my National Geographic Atlas of the World (Eighth Edition) has been with me for just over two years now, the result of a rare moment of book-buying extravagance.Admittedly, everything in it can probably be found somewhere online, and indeed if I’m at work I’m the first to be glad of Google or Mapquest if searching for something specific. But if I’m at home, there’s nothing like opening this massive book on my lap, or seeing it sprawl in front of me on the dining room table, seeing the world open up before me. Even if I’m not searching for something specific – indeed especially if I’m not – the very bigness of the atlas leaves me with an appreciation of the bigness of the world, and there’s little I enjoy more than getting lost in its pages.Lydia: My dear editor, there are some circles where you will get cut for talking about reference books like that. It was my great pleasure to spend the last two years working for an antiquarian bookseller, and as a result I encountered a bewildering number of bibliographies and reference books, many of which are not online and which have no useful online equivalent. The fourth edition of Besterman’s World Bibliography of Bibliographies, if you please, is five enormous volumes, and that was published in 1965. Some industry standards have made the switch to digital, but I think it will be a long time before the antiquarian (anachronistic?) book trade mulches all of its physical reference libraries. That said, I’m willing to be pragmatic about the eventual digitization of everything because it seems so unlikely that I would be able to amass a legitimate reference collection of my own. The Dictionary of National Biography, for example, is now available online by subscription for around 200 pounds a year, or free if your library subscribes. The set of 60 volumes, on the other hand, is a $5,000 proposition, not to mention the price of the square footage it sits on. But none of this answers your question. My favorite reference book is the book my boss told me to read when he hired me, John Carter’s legendary ABC For Book Collectors. It explains books as objects and commodities from A (advance copy) to Y (yellow-back) in a straightforward and engaging manner. It’s inexpensive, it’s small, it’s been around forever, and it’s fun to read. It is, dare I say, a must-have.Kevin: The key part of the question for me is “has not been superseded by the internet in its usefulness and convenience.” This leads me to pick that most common of all reference books, the dictionary. Mine is a Webster’s New Collegiate won as a prize in high school.When thinking about this question, I considered the ways the Internet typically holds an advantage over physical books. They are, I think, four: first, the Internet is dynamic and easily edited, allowing it to respond to changes in knowledge; second, the Internet takes up little room in your house, making it a nice alternative to a cabinet full of encyclopedias; third, the Internet is associative, allowing you to look up one thing in Wikipedia, and then click through to five other related topics you had not thought about before; and fourth, the Internet has multimedia.The dictionary, though, neither needs nor responds well to the type of advantages the Internet has to offer. It’s content is largely consistent from year-to-year and never needs revising. It takes up little room. It’s not used in a way that benefits that much from associate or multimedia options. In sum, the Internet can no more improve on the dictionary than it can on the wheel.Garth: I have three desk references that I find indispensable. One is the Oxford English Dictionary; I’ve got the two-volume compact edition with the magnifying glass, which I picked up for $37 at a used bookstore. Not every writer will find himself resorting to hippopotomonstrosesquipedalia such as “quiptificate,” or “horripilating,” but, perhaps to my discredit, I sometimes do. Luxuriating in the etymological swarf of the O.E.D. is also a great way to procrastinate, in that it gives me the illusion of time usefully spent. Right next to the thick two volumes is the American Map Corporation’s remarkable Truckers Atlas for Professional Drivers. If you need to locate a character within an American state or major city, the 400-page Truckers Atlas is your man. Finally, the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature comes in handy for blog pieces. The entries are fairly bland, but are great for fact-checking, and the book has a nice globalist bent.Anne: I fear I’m far too digitized. Despite the Mennonite origin of my last name, I am by no means a Luddite. My favorite reference is the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary on CD-ROM – it’s an amazing tool, with the definition of every word in the the English language only a few taps away at the keyboard, and without the heft of the paper dictionary. It’s also great for finding words when you only half recall the word, because when you enter a word that’s not in the dictionary, it suggests a list of words you may be looking for. You can do a reverse word look-up as well as a search for words that rhyme. Also useful, though not quite as nifty, is the online version, which has all the benefits of the CD-ROM except you have to pay a yearly fee for the service and if you’re without web access, you’re without your dictionary. (Plus, an open web browser makes for an easy distraction when writing.)I love the breadth of the Oxford English Dictionary, especially because it shows a word’s origins and the ways the use has changed over time, but I haven’t had access to the online version since college and there isn’t room for the old-fashioned form in my Brooklyn apartment. Despite its unreliability, I am madly in love with Wikipedia for the expansive information it offers about seemingly everything. I still consult Abrams’ Glossary of Literary Terms as well as the Merriam Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, one was a staple in my college literature classes and the other I purchased for ten dollars in a discount bookstore. They’re both useful but not irreplaceable. When I was working as a copy editor and proofreader, I lived by Fowlers and The Chicago Manual of Style. Now they’re both gathering dust on my bookshelf.Emily: I’m a sucker for etymology. English words and phrases aren’t only the means by which stories are told, they have stories to tell themselves about our past – about ancestors and mores and customs long dead. Cobweb, for example, tells of a time in England’s Anglo-Saxon past when a spider was a coppe. Corduroy, “corde du roi” or “cord fit for a king,” tells of a time when what we know as a sturdy, humble fabric was made of silk instead of cotton and was used exclusively by French royalty for their hunting costumes. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) is a great source of etymological lore, and so long as my generous patrons at Stanford University continue to allow me remote access, the online version of the OED is the reference I can’t do without, and the reference that Wiki and Google just can’t touch. For example, did you know that the sports term “hat trick” comes to us from cricket?2. a. Cricket. The feat of a bowler who takes three wickets by three successive balls: orig. considered to entitle him to be presented by his club with a new hat or some equivalent.1877 J. LILLYWHITE Cricketers’ Compan. 181 Having on one occasion taken six wickets in seven balls, thus performing the hat-trick successfully. 1882 Daily Tel. 19 May, He thus accomplished the feat known as the ‘hat trick’, and was warmly applauded. 1896 WEST 1st Year at School xxvi, The achievement of the hat~trick afforded Eliot the proudest moment of his life.b. Hence gen., a threefold feat in other sports or activities.When Stanford gives me up and I am cut off from my beloved OED, there is William and Mary Morris’ Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. It’s not as comprehensive as the OED, but its entries have an old-fashioned quality that sometimes verges into a delightfully colorful tastelessness (without sacrificing historical accuracy!). Take donnybrook:A true donnybrook consists of a knock-down-drag-out brawl with anywhere from a handful to a mob of participants. It takes it name from the town of Donnybrook, a suburb southeast of Dublin. There, from medieval times up to the middle of the nineteenth century, were held annual fairs, which for riotous debauchery rivaled the Saturnalian revels of Caesar’s time. They always wound up in fisticuffs and worse—much worse.Over the centuries the Irish have displayed a notable disinclination to avoid a good fight. Indeed, their hankering for a brawl is as legendary as their ability at handling their traditional weapon, the shillelagh. So it’s hardly to be wondered at that the annual spectacle of thousands of Irishmen flailing light-heartedly about with splendid disregard for the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules should have made the name donnybrook synonymous with brawling.Ah, yes, Irishmen and their shillelaghs. I think they also eat nothing but potatoes and babies and live in caves. No?Max: Even as a kid I always loved map books and encyclopedias. In the case of the latter I spent many hours with a well-worn set of Golden Book Encyclopedias and then later, many more with the family’s World Book set. With all the moving around I did after college, a reference library wasn’t a luxury I could afford to lug, but I do have a couple reference books I use regularly. One is my AP Stylebook, the one required reference of my journalism school years. I still keep it within reach for quick answers to questions like when to capitalize “chief justice” and what precisely is meant by the term “prime rate.”Also still getting ample use is a fat paperback, The Synonym Finder. When I was working at the bookstore in Los Angeles, a writer from out of town came in. She was suffering a bout of writer’s block and the only cure was The Synonym Finder. We had a single, very beat-up copy tucked away on our shelves, but she bought it gladly and with a sense of relief that was visible on her face. The episode convinced me, and I secured my own copy as soon as I could. She was right. It’s a superior thesaurus, and it has never disappointed me.With this Millions Quiz, we decided to try something new. We also polled members of The Millions Facebook Group to get their answers to our question. Here a few of the responses:Matthew Tiffany: Omit needless words. Omit. Needless. Words. Strunk & White.Anne Fernald: The Oxford Companion to English Literature (ed Margaret Drabble – it’s her voice I love) followed closely by M. H. Abrams’ Glossary of Literary Terms.Mike Lindgren: Chicago Manual of Style. It would not be readily reproducible online, and it is essential for anyone serious about the business of words.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What are your essential reference books?