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In Dickens' David Copperfield, there is an exchange between David and Mr Pegotty who arrives with his nephew Ham to visit him at school. It runs as follows:

"Do you know how mama is, Mr Peggotty? I said. And how my dear, dear old Peggotty is?

'Oncommon' said Mr Peggotty.

'And little Em'ly, and Mrs Gummidge?'

'On--common', said Mr Peggotty.

And following a further exchange Peggotty continues:

…I was to come over and inquire for Mas'r Davy and give her dooty, humbly wishing him well and reporting of the fam'ly as they was oncommon toe-be-sure. Little Em'ly, you see, she'll write to my sister when I go back, as I see you and as you was similarly oncommon, and so we make it quite a merry-go-rounder.

Clearly oncommon means something like "in the best of health" but not only is it not quoted in the OED - even as an historic archaism - but as one who grew up close to the Norfolk dialect, which Peggotty speaks, it is unfamiliar to me too.

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  • My only idea (I don't buy into the 'uncommon' suggestion) is that it is a version of 'on-comen', meaning 'coming on' or 'coming along' nicely - 'comen' being a Middle English version of 'come'. That would certainly fit with the sense of the passage, and with Peggotty's way of speaking. I haven't yet found anything else to support this though! Apr 4 '20 at 14:15
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Dickens frequently wrote his characters' dialog in eye dialect, and his characters also frequently speak with non-standard grammar, often with characteristic quirks or catchphrases.

So I'd interpret oncommon as an eye-dialect representation of uncommon, being used as a shorthand for "uncommonly good" or "uncommonly well", and being repeated often by the same character as a quirk of her speech.

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  • Norfolk dialect does tend to turn "un" into "on" - onfortunately. Indeed various English working-class accents have this feature. It was I sense an attempt by Dickens faithfully to reproduce the Norfolk accent.
    – WS2
    Apr 4 '20 at 18:50
  • In an article Dickens as sociolinguist Patricia Poussa draws attention to his undoubted grasp of the Norfolk accent which "he utilised in the speech of the Yarmouth fishermen, Ham and Daniel Peggoty" . She makes connections between Scandinavian languages and the particular variant of Norfolk dialect spoken in the Flegg area around Great Yarmouth, a place of known Viking settlement. Ref Writing in Non-Standard English, eds. Irma Taavitsainen, Gunnel Melchers and Paivi Pahta (Philadelphia 1999)
    – WS2
    Apr 4 '20 at 19:01

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