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You Didn’t Invent That: Charles Dickens and Boredom

Charles_Dickens

Charles Dickens is often given credit for inventing words that he was not the first to use. This is not surprising, if only because he was much more widely read than some of the people who had used these words before him. Dickens was also far more attuned to the language of the streets than were most of his contemporaries, and so his writing contains many examples of recently-invented terms. Writing in the Quarterly Review in 1839, Richard Ford refers to Dickens as the “regius professor of slang.”

In addition to the slang terms that Dickens was an early adopter of, there are a good number of standard words that he is supposed to have pulled out of his head and been the first to put on paper. Boredom is one such word.

While many people maintain that Charles Dickens invented the term boredom, this is not the case. Boredom can be found as far back as 1829, when it appears in the August 8th issue of 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.” The word is in occasional use for the next couple of decades before it appears in Dickens’s Bleak House in 1853.

The Pickwick Papers contained a handful of terms that Dickens popularized through his early adoption, but did not coin. Despite popular belief, Dickens was not the first writer to use butter-fingers; it makes an appearance a year before he used it, in an 1835 issue of Waldie’s Select Circulating Library. Dickens was not the inventor of the phrase devil-may-care, which also can be found the year before he used it in the newspaper The Commercial Advertiser, in 1836. Nor was he the first writer to use flummox, no matter what the wise men of the Internet may tell you; that word had been in use since at least 1832, five years before Dickens employed it in The Pickwick Papers.

There are still a large number of words for which Dickens provides us with the earliest known evidence: sawbones seems likely to have its first use in his writing, as do a number of lesser-known words, such as metropolitaneously, which means “in a metropolitan manner.” And even if he did not invent some of these other words, the fact that he used them so soon after they had been first used by someone else indicates that he was well-attuned to the changing nature of the English language. Dickens may have been inventive, and he may have been a prodigious user of new words, but he did not invent boredom, and we should stop saying that he did.

But those of you who are not fans of nineteenth-century serialized literature, and who have had the pleasure of wading through all 952 pages of Nicholas Nickelby may take a different tack: you can now say “Charles Dickens may not have invented boredom, but he certainly perfected it.” This is not a statement with which I am not prepared to argue.

14 Comments

  1. gary lopez-watts -  January 19, 2016 - 4:42 am

    i’d like it if “matchingly” were made into a word, as there seems to be no agreeable substitute. i would like it as well if you were to include an obvious link to suggest new words, as if there is one, i have not seen it. dictionary.com is a good website, you guys do a great job.

    Reply
    • Patti B -  February 21, 2016 - 2:13 pm

      I also agree, I’m enjoying every bit I learn from here and from the e-mail a word a day.. I think its the best “read” on the internet.. lol :D

      Reply
  2. Wade Sandeman -  December 28, 2015 - 3:12 pm

    Hey,
    Dickens was certainly a genius.
    From my small experince, I can tell you that only maybe Shakespeare beats him in the lists of the best authors in the world.
    I have read most of his fantastic and gripping book, which include Great Expectations, probably his master piece.
    Lol,
    ps sorry for typos if any

    Reply
  3. Eric J. Verduzco -  December 19, 2015 - 3:05 pm

    there should be an “edit” button for the comment leavers

    Reply
  4. Eric J. Verduzco -  December 19, 2015 - 2:56 pm

    Oh PS… sorry for any typos, I didn’t have the time to proofread my article. Very sorry about that.

    Reply
  5. Eric J. Verduzco -  December 19, 2015 - 2:53 pm

    Very interesting read indeed. Being an amateur writer myself, in which I am about to publish 2 children stories and have entered pieces my poetry and won ribbons at the county fair and little things of this nature, I am fascinated with the English language compare to many other languages in the world. They say that English is one of the most difficult languages to learn if you were not born and raised with English as the primary language in your home. I can understand this train of thought due to that there are many different avenues certain words can be applied correctly and then again misused, not to mention the spelling of English words that ARE the same with separate meanings, for example the word “read” has its present tense and past tense spelled the same way. If that is not confusing, than I don’t understand the meaning of “confusing”. Read as a present tense should be spelled like, Reid, known as a male name, or Reed, a plant usually growing next to a water source, Rede is a word that also has multiple meanings itself as well, to explain, counsel, advice, a plan, scheme and also a tale; story which I find funny or further to aggravate the situation of an example due of what the present tense of the word Read is, so therefore to the spelling of Rede should be the words present tense as wells as to tell a story or a tale. “This tale is a good Rede” opposed to “This story is a good Read” Though my computer here doesn’t know of the word rede and is underlined with the “red” line as if its misspelled or misused, but the dictionary says it is a definite word born in the country of England and is considered as an old English word coming from the words Read and Ready, “Rede” ,,,makes sense in a round about way. But why not put the old English word to good use and have the word Read separated from past and present tense? Read as a past tense is the most confusing and is the culprit. Read as past tense, sounding like the color red, has an “e” after the letter “a” which a rule of thumb learning the English language as a child in Elementary School that a vowel following a vowel changes the sound of the word or the vowel “e” from an “eh” sound to an “ee” sound… right?!! So how did the word “read”, as a past tense sounding like the word “red”, get away with breaking the rule? I’ve always wanted to asked this type of a question but never have. This is just one “simple” example of just one word. There are hundreds of English words that run into this similar train wreck.
    But I have rolled into a topic that just flowed right out of me here. The real reason I wanted to write was to ask if there is such a list of words that Charles Dickens in fact DID invent that stuck and we use in our modern day every day English? Boy, would I interested in seeing that list. Please write me and let me know… thanks, this was fun!

    Sincerely, Eric J. Verduzco.
    Note: my Website is being changed and is under construction, hard hat area enforced!! Sorry

    Reply
    • Patti B -  February 21, 2016 - 2:10 pm

      I’m glad you didn’t “edit” your post as I found every bit of it interesting! I also found the word “Read” past and present tense a bit of the “rebel” in the English language, and found I am also not quite understanding how or the why it got to get away with not “following the normal laws” like the words Knight and Knife, getting away with “silent K’s”?? Who decides, to confuse the public and toss in a word that defies the ‘laws” and have some crazy fun, and make it that much tougher (there you go another— “gh” -sounding like “fffff” ) on those learning the English language, and those little ones in school trying to perfect their native tongue, (ok another twister–) I love this e-mail a day- (THIS BLOG)– and find words – meaning – their derivative- and the time frame of the source and origin quite fascinating.. (again a silent c) ooofff! The more you observe the more you realize just how far we have come to learn…. :D that is even more wonderful!!

      Reply
  6. Mustafa -  December 18, 2015 - 7:50 am

    Dickens was simply a lucky man to get all those credits. Many before him,had used those words, but failed to get a massive readership. I think, it’s the power of his stories that gave him the credit of being a fantastic word inventor. Look at his names, MURDSTONE in David Copperfield, a murderer + a stone-faced dude. He has left behind a huge legacy for us to deal with.

    Reply
  7. David -  December 17, 2015 - 2:51 am

    Dickens may not have been the first to use the word boredom, but I think I heard it suggested that he was the firs to use it with the modern meaning. In the quote from _The Albion_, it appears to mean ‘the act of being boring’, rather than ‘the state of being bored’.

    Reply
  8. icequeenxoxo -  December 16, 2015 - 3:30 pm

    lol weird

    Reply
  9. Fred -  December 16, 2015 - 11:57 am

    “Charles Dickens may not have invented boredom, but he certainly perfected it.” This is not a statement with which I am not prepared to argue.
    (double negative)
    so this is a statement that you are prepared to argue.

    Reply
  10. Patrick Mc Ginty -  December 16, 2015 - 5:38 am

    You have to read Dickens with your soul as well as your mind.
    Cultivate both.

    Reply
  11. Caden McCall -  December 15, 2015 - 9:03 pm

    Epic.

    Reply
  12. David -  December 15, 2015 - 8:37 am

    Metropolitaneously doesn’t show up on this dictionary. You should update it. It’s a beautiful word. Thank you for the article. It was quite interesting.

    Reply

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