Q&A: Sick vs sic

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 are loving this seriously sick Q&A!

Q: I’m feeling sick today AWC.

A: Well, shall we postpone today then?

Q: No, you misunderstand. I’m feeling “sick”.

A: Ummm.

Q: As in “sick” vs “sic” – can we discuss when to use each?

A: Oh, okay, sure. Well, “sick” is relatively straightforward – everyone will be familiar with the adjective meaning unwell. It dates back to the Middle Ages, from a combo of Old English (seoc), Dutch (ziek) and German (siech). Actually feeling “sick” – as in nauseated, was more recent – the early 1600s.

Q: Don’t you mean “feeling nauseous”?

A: No, we’re happy with “nauseated” thanks. We’ve chatted about this difference before in another fully sick chat.

Q: Ah okay. And “sick” is also a noun?

A: Yes, in two ways. The first, universally, it’s seen in examples like “she tended to the sick and wounded”. The other is more informal, as a synonym for vomit – used outside America. E.g. “I’ve been cleaning up cat sick.”

Q: I hope no one is eating while reading this.

A: True.

Q: Anyway, the real one I’m curious about is the use of “sick” as a verb. Like how you “sick” a dog on someone. Is this the right spelling, or is it “sic”?

A: That’s a really good question.

Q: Why thank you.

A: Throw enough darts and you’ll eventually hit a bullseye…

Q: Sorry?

A: Nothing.

Q: So, is it “sick” or “sic”?

A: Some will say it can be both. The verb itself means “to attack” – it first appeared in 1845 and actually evolved from the word “seek”.

Q: So if it evolved from “seek”, then “sick” seems to make the most sense, yes?

A: You might think that, but it seems “sic” was the original spelling. Past tense also seemed a toss up between “sicced the dogs” and “sicked the dogs” – one of the possible reasons for the rise of variant “sick”.

Q: “Siccing” the dogs does look a bit odd. I guess if it sounded the same, I can see why some people reverted to a more familiar spelling.

A: Yeah, it seems that has happened. Some also put it down to the spelling of a 1992 punk album titled “Sick ’Em” but we’re not convinced enough people would have been influenced by that.

Q: What do the dictionaries say?

A: Most list both variants these days. But the Macquarie Dictionary stands firm, only acknowledging the “sic” spelling. If you want to play it safe, we advise to use “sic”, “sicced” and “siccing” – despite how odd it might look.

Q: So you can feel as sick as a dog but you should sic your dogs?

A: Correct.

Q: What about the other use I see of “sic”? Often in brackets.

A: Yes, writers will use “(sic)” when quoting someone. The (sic) indicates a mistake that was made by the person being quoted and not the writer.

Q: Gosh that seems petty. Why don’t they just fix the mistake?

A: Generally it’s frowned upon to alter direct quotes by someone. So you might see “For all intensive (sic) purposes”, for example.

Q: Why “sic” anyway?

A: It’s direct from Latin – meaning “thus”.

Q: Final question today. What’s with all the kids calling things “sick” these days?

A: Yes, it’s one of those words that can mean both good and bad – the “good” version being slang only of course. As Oxford Dictionaries reminds us, it’s actually common slang practice – previously seen with “bad” (since 1897) or “wicked” (since 1920). “Sick” is more recent however, first recorded in the US in 1983.

Q: Sick answers bro! But yeah, I’m sick of this conversation now. Goodbye.

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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