If you were told to name a Charles Dickens novel at random, possibly by someone attempting to prove a theory, there’s a very good chance that you’d say Oliver Twist. It is, after all, one of his most popular, most adapted and most accessible novels. One of the main reasons for this is the vivid characters – Fagin, Sikes, Nancy (no one cares about the Maylies), and of course the Artful Dodger.
If you’re not familiar with the character, he’s the young pickpocket who meets the title character and introduces him to the thieves’ gang led by Fagin. He’s a bit of an ambiguous character, a friend to Oliver, but one who doesn’t hesitate to sell him out in order to save his own skin. At the end, spoiler alert for a novel a hundred and seventy years old, he finds himself captured and transported to Australia. The character was memorably portrayed by the late Jack Wild in the film Oliver!
The character’s real name is Jack Dawkins, but the Artful Dodger is his better-known nickname. It’s a memorable nickname alright, but where does it come from? It seems obvious. He’s a dodgy character. He dodges about. And he’s very skilled, or “artful.”
But there may be a further significance to the name. I was recently looking into Victorian clothing, and in Ruth Goodman’s very readable How To Be A Victorian, she mentions that at least one East London tailor advertised “artful dodge.” She doesn’t explain the meaning of this phrase, but I had a look in the Online Etymology Dictionary, and in 1842 the word “dodge” was recorded as being slang for “work.” Oliver Twist was published in 1838. Dickens also used the phrase “artful dodge” in his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. What all this would seem to suggest is that the phrase “artful dodge” would have been well known to Londoners as a slangy way of saying “good work.”
The word “dodger” itself is also worth looking into, because it doesn’t really exist any more. In the 19th century, it basically meant what the name implies – a person who dodges. From the 18th century onwards, a dodge could also mean a trick or a con. Oddly enough, we don’t really use the word “dodge” in this sense, nor do we use the word “dodger.” We might describe something as “dodgy,” meaning shifty or untrustworthy, a word which appeared around the 1850s, but that’s the only such derivation of the word still in use.
So in other words, “Artful Dodger” can mean “skilled trickster,” not a million miles from what we’d normally assume such a name to mean. But for Dickens’ early Victorian audience, who saw artful dodge advertised out on the streets and heard it from those around them, the name would have had a double meaning that it’s long since lost.