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Where does the phrase "Scare the Dickens out of..." originate from? And does it refer to Charles Dickens?

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This is one of several phrases using dickens as a euphemism for devil such as what the dickens, where the dickens, the dickens you are, etc. Since its use can be traced back to Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, it has nothing to do with Charles Dickens. Though, according to Michael Quinion at WWW:

it does seem to have been borrowed from the English surname, most likely sometime in the sixteenth century or before. (The surname itself probably derives from Dickin or Dickon, familiar diminutive forms of Dick.)

However, when looking for this clip from the play:

clip from The Merry Wives of Windsor

I found this footnote with an alternate theory:

http://books.google.com/books?id=FU2U2eXY5JoC&printsec=frontcover&dq=the+merry+wives+of+windsor&hl=en&ei=GjgOTvWsLYLX0QHLgvHADg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=dickens&f=false

  • Nice answer and congrats on your 10K! – Kit Z. Fox Jul 2 '11 at 0:07
  • 2
    @Kit: Thanks. At least I accomplished something today. – Callithumpian Jul 2 '11 at 0:14
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According to Etymonline, it is an

exclamation, 1590s, apparently a substitute for devil; probably altered from Dickon, nickname for Richard and source of the surnames Dickens and Dickenson, but exact derivation and meaning are unknown.

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ONE explanation is that it is a euphemism for the Devil or Old Nick. This certainly fits with: 'I cannot tell what the dickens his name is' (Merry Wives of Windsor III, ii). Another explanation is that it relates to one Dickins or Dickson, a maker of wooden bowls, who appears to have had a penchant for losing money, for example: 'I was constrained to take half the money they cost mee, gaining by them as Dickins did by his dishes. Who buying them five for twopence solde six for a peny.' (1579, R Galis). Alternatively, Middleton (1599): 'No more is to be got by that than William Dickins got by his wooden dishes'. There are numerous other similar references. Anyway, it lets Charles off the hook.

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