Why is Charles Dickens used in an exclamatory phrase that synonymizes his name with hell? Why don't today's slang-slinging youth instead scream, "Damn! That hurt like the Shakespeare!" Even though these supposed references to giants of literature are incorrect, Shakespeare can surely lay greater claim than any other author. In truth, the phrase what the dickens refers to an individual only slightly more evil than most writers: the Devil.
This usage of dickens is derived from an oath constructed exactly like the more holy, by God. The origin is usually dated to the 17th century, a perversion of Nick or Old Nick. Most likely, this Christian appellation for the devil comes from the Danish nøkken. Similar to the Danish, the Scandinavian nick was a water-wraith that sadistically delighted in the misfortune of sailors. Christian clergy (sadistic in their own fashion) used this existing imagery in their "scare 'em into heaven" campaigns.
To completely dispel any notions that this phrase has anything to do with Charles Dickens, below is documented proof from a well known Stratford-upon-Avon resident. Please note that this particular document was written long before Chuck was ever born.
I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my
husband had him of. What do you call your knight's
The Merry Wives of Windsor Act III, Scene II
Thanks to liveforever for the correction on nøkke.
After a msg from Uri E Bakay, I pursued the idea that dickens is derived from devilkin, only to find sharply divided sources supporting for and against.
See more phrases Shakespeare invented...
Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, p.650