What the dickens
What's the meaning of the phrase 'What the dickens'?
'What the dickens...' is an intensified form of simple 'what...?' questions.
For example, the question 'what is that weird flashing light in the sky?' might be intensified to 'what the dickens is that weird flashing light in the sky?'.
The 'dickens' intensifier is used in various questions - 'where the dickens?', 'why the dickens?', how the dickens?', but 'what the dickens' is by far the most commonly used.
All of the above forms are rather antiquated and you are more likely to come across them in period dramas than in everyday speech.
What's the origin of the phrase 'What the dickens'?
Two great English writers are often associated with the phrase 'what the dickens'. No surprise that one of them is Charles Dickens - the other is William Shakespeare.
As it turns out, the phrase has nothing to do with either of them.
Dickens is a euphemism for the word devil, possibly via devilkins. A devilkin is a diabolical imp - a king of mini-devil.
Euphemisms that avoid mention of either God or the devil are known as minced-oaths and 'what the dickens' is an archetypal example of that form.
Shakespeare used 'what the dickens' in 'the Merry Wives of Windsor, 1600:
I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of.
The bard didn't coin the expression though. The earliest use in print that I know of is in a play by the Tudor writer Thomas Heywood - 1st Part King Edward IV, 1599:
By my hood ye make me laugh, what the dickens is it love that makes ye prate to me so fondly, by my fathers soule I would I had job'd faces with you.
Two words there don't translate easily into modern-day English - prate and job'd. Prate is straightforward, in that it means 'chatter/prattle'. Job'd is less so. The word is used in other texts as a variant spelling of 'jabbed' and I can find no other meaning for it. However, that meaning doesn't seem to make sense in the context of the citation above. I have to admit defeat on this one.
As far as 'what the dickens' goes, Heywood beat Shakespeare to the punch by one year and Dickens by more than 200. What the dickens he meant by job'd, I really don't know
See also: phrases and sayings from Shakespeare.