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The proverbial locution called a "wellerism" is derived from the characteristic diction of "Sam Weller,"[1] the irrepressible "boots" at the White Hart Inn, and his loquacious father, "Tony,"[2] in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-37) by Charles Dickens (1812-70). Serialized in the Monthly Magazine, the novel did not capture the imagination of the reading public until the introduction of "Sam Weller" in Chapter 10; thereafter, the popularity of the book almost ensured that it would be adapted for the stage and seen by thousands of playgoers on two continents.[3] In its narrative and dramatic incarnations, directly and indirectly, Dickens' work provided both a name and numerous examples of a form of proverb in existence from the time of Theocritus (3rd century B. C.): the wellerism.[4]

When his attention was called to the most recent, unauthorized dramatization[5] of The Pickwick Papers, as the book is commonly denominated, Dickens was magnanimous in his disdain. "Well," he observed, "[I]f the Pickwick has been the means of putting a few shillings in the vermin-eaten pockets of so miserable a creature, and has saved him from a workhouse or a jail, let him empty out his little pot of filth and welcome. I am quite content to have been the means of releasing him."[6] The "miserable creature" is William George Thomas Moncrieff (1794-1857), a playwright and sometime theatrical manager; the dramatization in question is Sam Weller, or; Tlle Pickwickians,[7] which was presented at the Strand Theatre in London on 10 July 1837 with William James Hammond (1797-1848) in the leading role.

In a lengthy, heated apologia for his adaptation, Moncrieff claimed that he had not "departed from the spirit oi [his] proto-type, however greatly [he] may have been compelled [by dramatic necessity] to vary from their [sic] form and bearing..."[8] The playwright was sufficiently keen to realize that the laws of the drama and those of the novel are not identical; he also saw that the incidents and characters of The Pickwick Papers are too diverse to be molded into a single, unified dramatic action. His failure stems from failing to exercise the playwright's cardinal function: to select and arrange details. Sam Weller as a play is weakened by its superfluity of character and incident. The character of Sam Weller lacks the Dickensian multi-dimensionality, and even his diction is an awkward conglomeration of Dickens' own words and Moncrieff's often clumsy "improvements." Moncrieff, preferring to invent his own wellerisms, employed only four of Dickens forty-one examples of this proverb genre.

Dickens eventually wreaked a none-too-subtle vengeance on Moncrieff, to whom he alluded in his slightly later novel Nicholas Nickleby (1839):

It was upon the whole a very distinguished party, for independently of the lesser theatrical lights who clustered on this occasion round Mr. Snittle Timberry, there was a literary gentleman present who had dramatised in his time two hundred and forty-seven novels as fast as they had come out--some of them faster than they had come out--and who was a literary gentleman in consequence.[9]

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 5:1997 & Issue 6:1997, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

What follows is an index of the sixty-seven different wellerisms which have been extracted from Dickens and the adaptations by Stirling and Moncrieff. They are arranged chronologically (i.e., Dickens followed by Stirling and Moncrieff) and consecutively as they appear throughout the particular works. References to the Dictionary of Wellerisms are indicated by the letters MK (Mieder/Kingsbury) and a number identifying the texts in this published collection:

Wellerism Index
  1. Dickens: "No, no; reg'lar rotation, as Jack Ketch said, wen he tied the men up." (p. 138) - MK 1059
    Stirling: "no--no--reg'lar rotation, as Jack Ketch said, ven he tied the men up...." (p. 28)
    Moncrieff: "No--no, reg'lar rotation--as Jack Ketch said, vhen he tied up the malefactors." (p. 2)
  2. Dickens: ". . . what the devil do you want with me, as the man said wen he see the ghost?" (p. 144) - MK 301
    Stirling: "The next? is, what the devil do you want with me" as the man said ven he see'd the ghost." (p. 29)
  3. Dickens: ". . . out vith it, as the father said to the child, wen he swallowed a farden." (p. 177) - MK 914
    Moncrieff: ". . . out vith it--as the father said to the child, vhen it swallowed the farden!--" (p. 8)
  4. Dickens: "He wants you particklar; no one else'll do, as the Devil's private secretary said ven he fetched avay Doctor Faustus." (p. 220) - MK 1461
    Moncrieff: "He vants you partick'ler--as the devil's private secretary said vhen he fetch'd avay Doctor Faustus." (p. 70)
  5. Dickens: "Proud o' the title, as the Living Skellinton said, ven they show'd him." (p. 235) - not in MK
  6. Dickens: "There's nothin' so refreshin' as sleep, sir, as the servant-girl said afore she drank the egg-cupful o' laudanum." (p. 239) - MK 1198
  7. Dickens: "If you walley my precious life don't upset me, as the gentl'm'n said to the driver when they was a carryin' him to Tyburn." (p. 288) - MK 710
  8. Dickens: "Now, gen'l'm'n, 'fall on, as the English said to the French when they fixed bagginets." (p. 289) - MK 398
  9. Dickens: ". . . I think he's the wictim o' connubiality, as Blue Beard's domestic chaplain said, with a tear of pity, ven he buried him." (p. 309) - MK 1449
    Stirling: "I see that my father's a wictim of connubiality, as Blue Beard's domestic chaplain said, with a tear of pity, ven he buried him." (p. 47)
    Moncrieff: "You are a perfect wictim of connubiality, father; as Blue Beard's domestic chaplain said, vith a tear of pity, vhen he buried him." (p. 106)
  10. Dickens: "That's what I call a self-evident proposition, as the dog's-meat man said, when the housemaid told him he warn't a gentleman." (p. 338) - MK 990
  11. Dickens: "You know what the counsel said, Sammy, as defended the gen'l'm'n as beat his wife with a poker, venever he got jolly. 'And arter all, my Lord,' says he, 'it's a amable weakness."' (p. 355) - MK 1473
  12. Dickens: "It's over, and can't be helped, and that's one consolation, as they alway say in Turkey, ven they cuts the wrong man's head off." (p. 355) - MK 241
  13. Dickens: "Business first, pleasure arterwards, as King Richard the Third said wen he stabbed t'other king in the Tower, afore he smothered the babbies." (p. 382) - MK 145
    Stirling: ". . . business before pleasure, as the chaps said when they smothered the two babies in the Tower." (p. 29)
  14. Dickens: "Werry glad to see you, indeed, and hope our acquaintance may be a long 'un, as the gen'l'm'n said to the fi' pun' note." (p. 394) MK 1107
  15. Dickens: "Werry sorry to 'casion any personal inconvenience, ma'am, as the house-breaker said to the old lady when he put her on the fire...." (p. 405) - MK 644
  16. Dickens "All good feelin', sir--the wery best intentions, as the gen'l'm'n said ven he run away from his wife 'cos she seemed unhappy with him." (p. 410) - MK 653
    Stirling: No offence, sir; all good feelin'--the wery best intention--as the gentleman said ven he run away from his wife, 'cos she seemed unhappy with him." (p. 46)
  17. Dickens: ". . . vether it's worth while goin' through so much, to learn so little, as the charity-boy said ven he got to the end of the alphabet, is a matter o' taste." (p. 419) - MK 695
    Stirling: "But neither it's worth while goin' through so much to learn so little, as the charity boy said ven he got to the end of the alphabet." (p. 48)
  18. Dickens: ". . . now we look compact and comfortable, as the father said ven he cut his little boy's head off, to cure him o' squintin'." (p. 433) - MK 232
    Stirling: ". . . now look compact and comfortable, as the father said ven he cut his little boy's head off, to cure him o' squintin." (p. 56)
  19. Dickens: "Fine time for them as is well wropped up, as the Polar Bear said to himself, ven he was practising his skating." (p. 457) - MK 1372
  20. Dickens: ". . . I'm pretty tough, that's vun consolation, as the wery old turkey remarked wen the farmer said he was afeered he should be obliged to kill him for the London market." (p. 509) - MK 240
  21. Dickens: "Oh, quite enough to get, sir, as the soldier said ven they ordered him three hundred and fifty lashes." (p. 546) - MK 374
  22. Dickens: "Hooroar for the principle, as the money-lender said ven he vouldn't renew the bill." (p. 551) - MK 985


The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 5:1997 & Issue 6:1997, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

  2. Moncrieff: ". . . you seem to have bin rayther close pinch'd in your pantry, lately--as the valnut said to the nut-crackers...." (p. 146)
  3. Moncrieff: "Vell, vonders vill never cease--as the old lady said, vhen she'd twvins...." (p. 146)

*Previously published in Proverbium, 11 (1994), pp. 57-76

  1. For a discussion of the character in the novel, cf. Gwenllian L. Williams, "Sam Weller," Trivium I (1966): 88-101. Cf. also Archer Taylor's classic discussion of the wellerism in The Proverb (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1931, rpt. Hatboro, Penn.: Folklore Associates, 1962; rpt. with an introduction and bibliography ed. by Wolfgang Mieder. Bern: Peter Lang, 1985) 200-220.
  1. For a discussion of "Tony Weller's" characteristic speech, cf. William H. Bailey, "Wellerisms and Wit," The Dickensian I (1905): 31-34.

  2. Like many of Dickens' novels, The Pickwick Papers has attracted numerous writers who have cast tbe narrative work in a variety of dramatic forms. Although this essay concentrates on the versions executed at the time of the publication of the novel, several later adaptations may be of interest: Pickwick, a four-act drama by James Albery (1871); Bardell versus Pickwick, a sketch by John Hollingshead (1871); Jingle, a farce by James Albery (1878); Bardell versus Pickwick, a two-act operetta with book by T.H. Gem and music by Frank Spinney (1881); The Great Pickwick Case, an operetta with lyrics by Robert Pollitt and music by Thomas Rawson (1884); Jingle: or, The Pickwick Club, a three-act comedy by George E Rowe (1887); Pickwick, a one-act dramatic cantata with libretto by F. C. Burnand and music by Edward Solomon (1889); Bardell versus Pickwick by J.W. Bengough (1907); Monsieur Pickwick (in French), a five-act comedy-burlesque by Georges Duval and Robert Charvay (1911); Bardell v. Pickwick by Frank P. Davis (1915); Mr Pickwick, a two-act musical with libretto by Charles Klein, lyrics by Grant Stewart, and music by Manuel Klein (1903); Pickwick, a three-act comedy by Cosmo Hamilton and Frank C. Reilly (1927); Mr Pickwick, a two-act comedy by Stanley Young (1952); and Pickwick, a musical with libretto by Wolf Mankowitz, lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, and music by Cyril Ornadel (1965). Note is also taken of Sgt. Buzfuz (1871) and Frank E. Emson's The Weller Family (n.d.).

  3. Florence E. Baer, "Wellerisms in The Pickwick Papers," Folklore (London) 94, 2 (1983)173-183; M. Maass, "30 Odd Similes aus den Pickwick Papers von Charles Dickens," Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 41 (1867): 207-215.

  4. For a full discussion of Dickens' interaction with the dramatizers of his fictional works, cf. S. J. Adair Fitz-Gerald, Dickens and the Drama (London: Charles Scribner, 1910).

  5. Charles Dickens to John Forster, 7 September 1837. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Ed. Madeline House and Graham Storey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965) I, 304. Forster had written a scathing review of Sam Weller in The Examiner.

  6. A Drama in Three Acts, as Perfomed at the New Strand Theatre, with Unexampled Success (London: Privately printed, 1837). Included in English andAmerican Drama of the Nineteenth Century. Ed. Allardyce Nicoll and George Freedley. New York: Readex Microprint, 1965-66. Box 34.

  7. Sam Weller, "Advertisement," iii.

  8. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1950) 632. The entire episode occupies pp. 632-634.

  9. Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) XXVIII, 173.

  10. DNB 38, 173

  11. Sam Weller, "Advertisement," v. ". . . I had undoubted precedent, for what I did, in the instance of the first dramatic writer of all time--SHAKESPEARE! who has scarcely a play, that is not founded on some previous drama, history, chronicle, popular tale, or story."

  12. Nicholas Nickleby 633.

  13. The Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 granted a monopoly on the performance of regular comedy and tragedy to the theatres royal in Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Canny managers of the so-called "minor theatres" avoided prosecution by adding songs and spectacular scenes to regular comedies and tragedies and calling the new creations "burlettas." The necessity of such ruses was obviated by the passage of the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843 that dissolved tne monopolies.

  14. The Pickwick Club, or, The Age We Live In! Philadelphia: Frederick Turner, n. d. Included in English and American Drama of the Nineteenth Century, Box 48.

  15. A Drama in Three Acts. London: W Strange, 1837. Included in English and American Drama of the Nineteenth Century, Box 42.

  16. Weller, "Advertisement," iii. By way of comparison, Rede's adaptation ran to thirty-two pages in the cheap acting edition; Stirling's, to sixty; and Moncrieff's, to thirty-nine.

  17. All references from Dickens' novel come from The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Macdonald Illustrated Classics, No. 2 (London: Macdonald, 1948). An annotated list of the wellerisms included in Dickens, Stirling, and Moncrieff appears at the end of this paper.

  18. Charles Dickens to Frederick Yates, ?29 November 1838. The Letters of Charles Dickens I, 463.

  19. George C. D. Odell, Annals of the New York Stage (New York: Columbia UP,

  20. Odell IV, 550.

  21. Charles Dickens to William Mitchell, 16 February 1842. The Leners of Charles Dickens III, 64-65. There is no record of Dickens' having witnessed the performance.

  22. Arthur H. Wilson, A History of the Philadelphia Theatre 1835 to 1855 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968) passim.

  23. Cf. Bartlett Jere Whiting, "American Wellerisms of the Golden Age," American Speech 20 (1945): 3-11; and C. Grant Loomis, "Traditional American Wordplay: Wellerisms or Yankeeisms." Western Folklore 8 (1949): 1-21.

  24. For a discussion of the effect of the wellerisms in Moncrieff's drama upon contemporary American writers, cf. James M. Tidwell, "Wellerisms in Alexander's Weekly Messenger, 1837-39," Western Folklore 9 (1950): 257-262.

  25. Quoted in Odell IV, 203

  26. Quoted in Odell IV, 203-204.

  27. Odell IV, 251

  28. Nelle Smither, A History of the English Theatre in New Orleans (rpt: New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967 [1944]): 358. Henry B. Hunt (c. 1794-1854) was the "Sam Weller."

  29. Reviews of this production are contained in Alexander's Weekly Messenger, 9 May 1838: 3, 5; 6 June 1838: 3, 5.

  30. Wilson passim.

  31. Cf. especially Williams (note 2) and Baer (note 4).

  32. Cf. Wolfgang Mieder and Stewart A. Kingsbury, A Dictionary of Wellerisms (New York: Oxford UP, 1994) 27 (no. 251).

  33. Cf. Mieder and Kingsbury (note 33), viii.

nota bene:

A few days before going to print the authors came across the invaluable study by Marie Teresa McGowan, Pickwick and the Pirates: A Study of Some Early Imitations, Dramatisations and Plagiarisms of "Pickwick Papers" (Diss. University of London, 1975). For a discussion of wellerisms see esp. pp. 284-296.

George B. Bryan

Wolfgang Mieder

Department of Theatre

Department of German and Russian

University of Vermont

University of Vermont

Burlington, Vermont 05405

Burlington, Vermont 05405



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