Unless you are a recent arrival from Mars, you have no doubt heard the expression, “What the dickens?”
It is used in common sentences such as:
“What the dickens are you kids doing with that aardvark?”
Or, “Coach Carroll, what the dickens were you thinking trying to pass instead of run in the closing moments of Super Bowl XLVIII?”
And, “Former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels! What the dickens are you doing at this Trump rally?”
Dickens means pretty much the same thing as “devil.” As in, “What the dickens (devil) are you thinking by eating so many deviled (dickensed) eggs?”
It’s reasonable to suppose that “what the dickens” refers to the great English writer,
Charles Dickens. But in fact, it has nothing to do with him. Nor does the popular male clothing accessory, the dickey.
The phrase actually comes from another English writer named Shakespeare in a play called The Merry Wives of Windsor. It is just one of many household words that come from his plays and sonnets. In fact, ‘household words’ comes from Shakespeare.
It has been 400 years since Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil (his words). If he were alive today, he’d probably be writing advertising copy—or instruction manuals for the George Forman Grill. But in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, the play was the thing. Netflix and HBO were just dreams.
My neighbor recently told me that he would “hoist me by my own petard” if my dogs did their thing in his yard again. Luckily, he had no idea what a petard is. Neither did I. So I looked it up.
It is uttered by Hamlet in reference to his enemies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It turns out a petard is a small explosive device—so Hamlet wanted to literally blow the duo into the air. Not only is “hoist by my own petard” a common expression these days—but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a common name for a law firm.
Lots of us who know practically nothing about Shakespearean plays nonetheless use his sayings all day long without realizing it. Everyday expressions like “wild goose chase”, “break the ice”—and “seen better days” are all cribbed from Shakespeare.
Who knew that “heart of gold” came from Henry the Fifth. Neil Young owes the Shakespeare estate a royalty.
Similarly, “Shooting Star” was a big hit for The Spinners—but the title came from Bill Shakespeare.
The expression “to unclog” was derived from a Shakespeare play too. Perhaps the idea for Drano was born then too.
“There’s the rub” was not invented by a barbecue chef—but was coined by you-know-who. Hamlet said it in his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy—the same one where he also muttered stuff about fardels and bare bodkins.
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” is a beaut. It’s why I currently have my neighbor’s wheelbarrow—and he has my lawnmower. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
Believe it or not, Macbeth included the sentence “Knock, knock! Who’s there?” So it is William Shakespeare who is responsible for one of the most annoying joke formulations in history. Shakespeare not only created plays—but puns, which are plays on words.
His knock, knock phrase helped make these jokes possible:
Madame foot’s caught in the door!”
And, the immortal:
Little old lady.
Little old lady who?
Gee, I didn’t know you could yodel.”
Dumb, right? Blame the so-called genius Shakespeare.
Naturally the bard gets a lot of glory for coming up with everyday phrases. But here’s a bit of praise for other people and sayings, heretofore unheralded before this moment:
Wilma Jenkinson who, in 1645, was the first to say: “You kids get in here and eat right now or I’m throwing it out!”
Seymour Carlisle, who in 1298 said, “Let’s party like it’s 1299!”
And. of course, Cassius Aurelius of the city of Pompeii—who said as Vesuvius suddenly erupted: “Oh, S___!”
Shakespeare could not have said it better.