We don’t know how Charles Dickens felt about Halloween. Our horrid holiday wasn’t much on the radar for the average Victorian Brit. They categorically preferred December as their season of spooks – witnessed by literature’s most famous ghost story, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But had Dickens known what Halloween would soon become, he would have instantly understood its appeal. Like a perennial trick-or-treater, Dickens had a lifelong “attraction of repulsion,” an irresistible draw to the grim and ghostly side of life that peppered his writings with some of the spookiest scenes in literature.
He knew all about giving his readers “the creeps.” Totally appropriate, as Dickens was the first to print that very expression – the creeps – using it in David Copperfield in the mid-1800s. It’s a perfect phrase still used today; such is Dickens’ enormous impact on the English language. Though not all of Dickens’ vocabulary passed so effortlessly into modern parlance. Many of his wonderfully weird words have been all but forgotten, hidden in the darker corners of his fiction, buried under confusing Victorian context and etymological enigmas. Archaic specimens like ugsome and phantasmagoria haven’t been properly used for years. Quite a shame actually, as they always come in handy at this time of year. So in honor of the holiday that Dickens would have certainly loved, let’s dust off those linguistic cobwebs and resurrect a few of his otherworldly word choices…
There is the belated traveller, going home with bag on back,
and stick in hand, who recoils from the ugsome devils and
long-necked monsters which the moon creates out of the
trees and bushes before him.
— All the Year Round
If you’re looking for an epic, all-in-one synonym for frightening, dreadful, loathsome, and horrible, give ugsome a try. It derives, as you might have guessed, from the same place our modern word ugly originates, the Old Norse ugga, meaning “to dread” – the same root that ultimately formed our phonetic spelling of disgust – ugh! In fact, you can use ugsome in describing practically anything that makes you go “ugh!” The pity is, this handy and wonderfully visceral term has been on the Endangered Word List for about six centuries now. Charles Dickens, bless him, tried to revive it in 1863, but it never seemed to catch on. Ugsome is now almost completely forgotten amongst us moderns. Can I get an “ugh!”
Quilp said not a word in reply, but walking so close to Kit
as to bring his eyes within two or three inches of his face
…like a head in a phantasmagoria.
— The Old Curiosity Shop
To understand Dickens’ peculiar reference, think about a phantasmagoria as a sort of 3-D horror movie for Victorians. It was truly the closest thing they ever got to it. Invented in the 1790s and burrowed from the Greek noun phantasma (“ghost, specter”), the spectacle went something like this: You’re crowded into a dark room; all at once a sequence of frightening images appear before your eyes, shrinking and growing to terrifyingly close proportions. Raise the lights and the “magical” mechanics of the phantasmagoria show were comically primitive. All you needed was a semi-transparent screen in front of the audience and a moveable slide projector behind it. Cast up a few images of ghosts, witches, and ghouls and then simply roll the projector closer to or further from the screen (screams and swoons to follow immediately). Of course no delicate Victorian would have suspected any of this, and the smelling salt bottle was constantly required.
[The Major’s] face and figure were dilated with Mephistophelean joy.
— Dombey and Son
The next time you see someone in a devil custom this Halloween, shout out that they’re looking mighty Mephistolphelean – and wait for vocabulary brains to be blown. Though between us,
Mephistolphelean is just a big word for “devilish.” Well, “devilishly cunning” would be more precise, thanks to the cleverness and cunning of the original Mephistopheles – the name of the diabolically tricky devil in the German legend of Faust. He’s the one that hoodwinks Faust into selling his soul for a few sinful pleasures. For Dickens, Mephistophelean was the perfect adjective to describe the evil craftiness of Major Bagstock, one of the more memorable villains of Dombey and Son. “He’s hard-hearted,” says another character in the novel, “he’s tough, sir, tough, and de-vilish sly!”
“You don’t mean to say he was burked, Sam?”
said Mr. Pickwick, looking hastily round.
— The Pickwick Papers
What does it take to get a scary verb named after you? For William Burke (1792-1829), it took quite a lot. First, you have to be devoted to the lurid practice of grave robbing (quite the messy, yet profitably, trade in the 1800s – medical schools were always needing fresh cadavers for study). But not just any grave robbing would do. You had to cut out the middleman (or middle graveyard) entirely and search for fresher specimens on city streets, strangling complete strangers and selling their bodies for anatomy lectures. That’s exactly what William Burke, and his partner, William Hare, did for about ten months in 1828 around the dark alleyways of Edinburgh, Scotland. One of the most sensational serial killers of the day, Burke’s story ended at the end of a hangman’s noose in 1829, though his legend was still striking fear into the hearts of Dickensian characters almost a decade later.
As I stood idle by…the pair of coarse, fat office candles that
dimly lighted Mr. Jaggers as he wrote in a corner were
decorated with dirty winding-sheets, as if in remembrance
of a host of hanged clients.
— Great Expectations
The Victorians practically invented the creepy-candlestick look. You’ve probably seen it before: a tall, tapered candle burning unevenly and creating a series of draped, congealed folds of wax down one side. We’d call it a waxy mess. Superstitious Victorians would call it a “winding-sheet” – always an unsettling omen of death. For them, it had an uncanny resemblance to a loosely draped burial cloth (then also called a “winding sheet,” for the way it wrapped around a corpse). And not surprising, given that his fictional world is shadowed by copious amounts of candlelight and premonitions of death, Dickens is routinely lighting up his darker chapters with these same spooky, symbolic waxings.
About the Author
Bryan Kozlowski is the author of the new word book, What the Dickens?! – Distinctly Dickensian Words and How to Use Them. A member of the Dickens Fellowship, his writings on Charles Dickens’ life and legacy have appeared in Slate and Country Life magazine.