Book review: What the Dickens?! by Bryan Kozlowksi

Last year, as you may recall, I read the complete works of William Shakespeare. It was an immensely rewarding project, to be sure, but I can’t lie: When I finished, I was really excited to read something else for a change. I immediately jumped for Bryan Kozlowksi’s What the Dickens?!: Distinctly Dickensian Words and How to Use Them, published in October 2016 by Running Press, who kindly sent me a galley for review.

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Image from Running Press.

That’s right, Shakespeare. You haven’t cornered the word market in the English language. In What the Dickens?!, Kozlowksi presents 200 of Charles Dickens most, well, Dickensian words from across his writing. Like growlery, “a place of refuge where one goes to vent frustrations.” Or comfoozled, “exhausted.” Or Pumblechookian, which is “typical of Mr. Pumblechook, Pip’s pompous, greedy, and hypocritical uncle in Great Expectations.” 

To guide our tour through Dickens’ whimsical and wide-ranging vocabulary, Kozlowksi loosely categorizes his selections by theme. One section is Words for Making Merry, including the likes of heeltap (a small amount of liquor remaining at the bottom of  glass) and hobbledehoy (an awkward and clumsy youth). Another is Vocabulary for the Smart-Sounding Victorian: bedight (“adorned”), plumbless (immeasurably deep), and Terpsichorean (relating to dancing), for instance.

Kozlowksi indeed curates a colorful menagerie, from words Dickens invented (sassigassity, “audacity with an attitude”) and based on his characters (Pecksniffian, “hypocritical”) to places (Gretna Green, a place at the the Anglo-Scottish border where lovers often eloped ) and practices of Dickens’ day (farm for children, a primitive Victorian day care, or cag- magger, an unscrupulous butcher).

And for each, page-long entry, Kozlowksi not only defines the words, but he also quotes their original context and offers insight into Victorian  culture, an anecdote about Dickens, or an interesting fact about the history and origin of the word at hand. Take moor-eeffoc, which particularly delighted me:

Moor-eeffoc [MOO-ee-fok] The uncanniness of common things seen suddenly from a different perspective. Case in point: Moor-eeffoc is simply the backward spelling of “coffee room.”

I recollect that…in the door there was an oval glass-plate, with COFFEE-ROOM painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee room now, but there there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backward on the wrong side MOOR-EFFOC (as I often used to do then, in a dismal revere), a shock goes through my blood.

– From Dickens’ Abandoned Autobiography

Moor-eeffoc is the most elusive and enigmatic word in the Dickensian lexicon. Dickens himself didn’t know how to define it, though future writers linked it to the very heart of his creative legacy. The word was of deep significance to fantasy writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.K. Chesterton–with the latter’s definition still considered the best:

That wild word, ‘Moor Eeffoc’, is the motto of all effective realism; it is the masterpiece of the good realistic principle–the principle that the most fantastic thing of all is often the precise fact. And that elvish kind of realism Dickens adopted everywhere. His world was alive with inanimate object. The date on the door danced over Mr. Grewgious’s, the knocker grinned at Mr. Scrooge, the Roman on the ceiling pointed down at Mr. Tulkinghorn, the elderly armchair leered at Tom Smart–these are all moore eeffocish things. A man sees them because he does not look at them.

I like to open up the book at random, enjoying each word like some magic little portal into Dickens’ world and imagination. Like lummy, which the Artful Dodger used in Oliver Twist for “first rate.” It’s “originally part of the longer interjection Lor’ lummy,” Kozlowksi explains, “a Cockney contraction of ‘Lord love me,’ used to express surprise or great interest.” And it perfectly describes What the Dickens?!

Kozlowksi’s knowledge of Dickens is comprehensive, his love for Dickens’ language is infectious, and his writing is fun, smart, and accessible. It’s a great book – and gift – for Dickens-philes and logophiles alike. Lor’ lummy, it might just make want to go on to read the complete works of Charles Dickens now…

WHAT THE DICKENS?!
By Bryan Kozlowksi
224 pages. Running PressRunning Press. US $15.00.

m ∫ r ∫

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