Ideas, Like Ghosts . . . Must Be Spoken To a Little Before They Will Explain Themselves

Charles Dickens? Henry Southgate? Frank J. Wilstach? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The popular writer Charles Dickens vividly depicted the neighborhoods, lives, and habits of the disparate social classes of Victorian England. His rich language employed clever similes such as:

An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.

In other words, an idea must be interrogated and pondered before it is understood. I have searched the writings of Dickens and cannot find this precise phrasing, but I am confident he wrote something similar. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: Between 1846 and 1848 Charles Dickens published installments of the novel “Dealing’s with the Firm of Dombey and Son Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation”. Dickens portrayed the friendly character Mr. Toots as a person of limited intellect. The simile under examination was used by Dickens to signal that Toots was unable to understand the thoughts and motivations of the character Paul Dombey. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Ideas, like ghosts (according to the common notion of ghosts), must be spoken to a little before they will explain themselves; and Toots had long left off asking any questions of his own mind.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1862 Henry Southgate published a compilation titled “Many Thoughts of Many Minds”. Under the topic “Evoking an Idea” Southgate included the following entry: 2

An idea, like a ghost (according to the common notion of ghosts), must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself. Dickens.

Dickens received credit for the expression above, but the phrasing differed from the original text. Southgate’s work specified “idea” and “ghost” instead of “ideas” and “ghosts”. Also, the word “they” was changed to “it”. This mistaken phrasing has propagated from one reference to another for more than 150 years.

In 1867 the London periodical “The Lady’s Own Paper” published the inaccurate version of the quotation: 3

AN idea, like a ghost (according to the common notion of ghosts), must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.—Dickens.

In 1872 “A Cyclopedia of the Best Thoughts of Charles Dickens” published an excerpt containing an accurate version of the quotation. Also, the novel “Dombey & Son” was properly cited: 4

Ideas, like ghosts (according to the common notion of ghosts), must be spoken to a little before they will explain themselves; and Toots had long left off asking any questions of his own mind. . .
Dombey & Son, Chap. 12.

In 1893 a piece in “The Journal of Education” of Boston, Massachusetts employed a short version of the quotation with “idea” and “ghost”. No attribution was given: 5

The beautiful uplifting idea which came to you in the busy moments of the past months and which you had no time to entertain, now knocks at the door. Bid it enter. “An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.” It will not come companionless.

In 1916 Frank J. Wilstach found the figure of speech memorable enough to include an instance in “A Dictionary of Similes” although he used an inaccurate phrasing: 6

An idea, like a ghost (according to the common notion of ghosts), must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.—DICKENS.

The simile continues to circulate in modern times. An instance appeared in a 2013 “Similes Dictionary”: 7

An idea, like a ghost . . . must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself —Charles Dickens

In conclusion, Charles Dickens should receive credit for the figure of speech he crafted about ideas and ghosts in the novel “Dombey and Son”. By 1862 a modified version of Dickens’s statement was circulating.

Image Notes: Illustration of three ghosts from Alexas_Fotos at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Stephanie Cerra whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Cerra told QI about the 1862 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1847, Dealing’s with the Firm of Dombey and Son Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation, Volume 1 of 3, Chapter 12: Paul’s Education, Quote Page 207, Bernhard Tauchnitz, Leipzig, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1862, Many Thoughts of Many Minds: Being a Treasury of Reference, Compiled and Analytically Arranged by Henry Southgate, Topic: Evoking an Idea, Quote Page 301, Column 1, Griffin, Bohn, and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1867 September 28, The Lady’s Own Paper, (Untitled short article), Quote Page 10 (also 714), Column 3, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  4. 1872, A Cyclopedia of the Best Thoughts of Charles Dickens, Compiled and Alphabetically Arranged by F. G. de Fontaine, Quote Page 480, Column 1, E. J. Hale & Son, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1893 July 20, The Journal of Education, Volume 38, Number 4, Ceasing to Exist by Florence A. Blanchard, Quote Page 77, Column 2, New England Publishing Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1916, A Dictionary of Similes by Frank J. Wilstach, Topic: Ideas, Quote Page 208, Column 1, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 2013, Similes Dictionary, Compiled by Elyse Sommer, Second Edition, Topic: Ideas, Quote Page 284, Visible Ink Press, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books Preview)