Q&A: ‘Sick as a dog’ and ‘sick as a parrot’

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're calling in sick…

Q: Hi AWC, I’d like to talk about the word “sick” please.

A: Oh goody. Just for a change of tone.

Q: Sorry?

A: Don’t apologise. What’s your question?

Q: It’s about the term “sick as a dog” – as seen in sentences like, “I panic bought and ate so much rice that I’m now sick as a dog”…

A: Very topical. And the phrase dates back – in print at least – to 1705. 

Q: But why dogs? They’re not known for being sick.

A: Sure, not in today’s vet care, dog hotel, mobile grooming, pooch pampering world. But 300 years ago, dogs were not the loveable loyal domestic companions we think of today.

Q: What were they?

A: Well, they were dogs. Roaming the streets. Catching diseases and getting sick. It wasn’t a fun life for them, and they were often associated with sickness. 

Q: So, it was a ‘dog-eat-dog world’, literally?

A: It was.

Q: And if you’re “sick as a dog”, you feel physically sick?

A: That’s right.

Q: My Uncle Tony had a cross between a labrador retriever and a poodle. It had a specific name.

A: The name you’re thinking of is a “labradoodle”.

Q: Why would he call him that? No, the name was “Buddy”. 

A: Um, we meant— never mind. 

Q: So, is being a “sick puppy” the same as being “sick as a dog”?

A: Not at all. When it first appeared in 1911, a “sick puppy” was a kind of lovesick fool, pining after someone. Today however, it’s more likely to be used to describe someone who is disturbed, in a disgusting or perverse way.

Q: Charming. So can you be sick as any other animals?

A: For a while, people tried out a few, including “horse” and “cat”, but the only other one that has stuck is “sick as a parrot”.

Q: “Sick as a parrot”? I haven’t heard of that one.

A: It turned up in the 1970s in England – popular with football players at the time. Instead of meaning physically sick, like a dog, it is said to express disappointment – an idiomatic opposite to being “over the moon”.

Q: Hang on. Didn’t we discuss that in another chat?

A: We sure did – you can find it here. The origin theories of “sick as a parrot” are a bit of a mess, ranging from a 1682 play through to Tottenham Hotspur’s 1919 team parrot or the famous 1969 Monty Python ‘dead parrot’ sketch. It’s likely that the latter inspired the journalists who first wrote it in 1973 football stories.

Q: Okay, so finally, why do people say “sick” to mean good?

A: This one first appeared in great numbers during the 1980s skateboarding era in the USA. But it didn’t go mainstream until the mid-late 1990s, again as slang among young people.

Q: And “fully sick”?

A: Well, that’s an Australian special – emerging in the late 1990s, early 2000s and spoken mainly by youths from Mediterranean places like Macedonia and Lebanon. It simply means extra good.

Q: But why “sick”?

A: Who knows. Slang does what it wants and just when you think you’ve figured it out, it moves on to where the cool kids are now hanging out.

Q: Those cool kids, always too quick… Well, this has been a sick chat all the same.

A: Don’t forget to wash your hands on the way out. 

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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