“What the Dickens!”

Though a bit old-fashioned, this expression still exists.  In modern times, its exclamation means, “What the heck?” or in more slang terms, “Really?!”

The origins of this phrase actually have nothing  to do with Charles Dickens.  Shakespeare introduced the term in his play, The Merry Wives of Windsor.  One of his female characters speaks this line as a more pleasant way of exclaiming the defamatory, “What the Devil!”

I learned this tidbit and many others on my three day field trip to Kent with my Dickens Master Class.  Like David Copperfield himself, we traipsed through quaint Canterbury, seaside Broadstairs, and historic Rochester, re-tracing Dickens’ steps along the way and providing context for many of his novels.

I encountered many members of the Dickens Fellowship on my journey, a group of Dickens fanatics who dress in character as they lead you on each tour:dickens1

I was surprised to learn that the chapters of the Fellowship are larger in the U.S. than in England…“What the Dickens!” These dandies must be roaming the cobblestone streets of Boston!

One of the most memorable sitings in Canterbury was the Duck Chair.  It sounds quaint but is actually quite monstrous.DSCN2335b

Women who nagged their husbands were placed on that plank chair and dunked into the water over and over until they repented….“What the Dickens!”  I guess I would have been awfully wet in those times!  As my very cute, mid-70 year old female Dickens Fellowship guide explained: “Nagging is simply the repetition of unpalatable truths.”  Well said.

Along the way, we visited cathedrals and castles which are as ordinary as trees in the English countryside.  Dickens apparently asked to be buried in the trench surrounding Rochester Castle, pictured below.  As in his life, he ascended from the depths to the very top of society, and his final resting place is in the lofty Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.








For lunch, we enjoyed the fare at various pubs…and you know I am always amused by the assortment of menu items at these establishments.  My favorites from this trip include the following:

ostrich tartar

Smoked eel, soft boiled eggs, sorrel dressing

spotted dick

Yes, that’s right, spotted dick!  This is a popular dessert of pudding with raisins.  How it got that unpalatable name is beyond me.  How exactly do you order it tactfully, “I’d like some spotted dick please?”  Apparently, if you’d like to enjoy it at home, you can buy spotted dick in a can…and you know what I have to say to that: “What the Dickens!”

The trip culminated with a visit to Dickens World.  Yes, such a place exists.  Like Pip, we had great expectations which were dashed as soon as it loomed into view:

You know a place located in a strip mall above a Diner and next to Subway is not going to be a highlight.  Disney it is not.  Undeterred, we took the boat ride through the London sewers, watched the 4D! movie, and sat through the  show led by an animatronic Dickens, hoping that Fagan did not pick our pockets! You cannot make this stuff up.

I think Dickens himself might have wearily proclaimed, “What the Dickens!”




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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Deb L November 3, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Cathy – Well done! Your best so far! Dickens would have been pleased.


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