Grammar

Sic or Sick? Each Has Two Very Different Meanings

When choosing whether to use sic or sick in a sentence, you have to remember that not only are they not the same, each word has more than one definition!

When it’s time to decide whether to use sic or sick, there are at least four different possible meanings you have to consider.

Let’s look at the two words individually.

Sic (Definition #1)

If you’ve ever seen a K9 officer demonstration, you’ve seen the well-trained dog attack a person dressed in a thick protective suit. The person is portraying a perpetrator of a crime that the dog is called in to take down.

It might be unlikely that the K9 handler would actually use the phrase, “Sic him,” to the dog as an instruction to attack, but it’s a possibility. Sic is a variant of the word seek and sometime between 1835 and 1845 was first recorded with a usage meaning to attack (or to cause an attack to happen). A dog following such an instruction may be said to be siccing his target, or may be said to have sicced his target. Occasionally, you’ll see the less-common sicking or sicked instead.

Sic (Definition #2)

But another meaning of sic helps you save face when you quote someone who has made an error. This variety of sic is usually written in brackets and italized, as [sic] and is Latin for “thus.” The full phrase it comes from is, “sic erat scriptum,” which translates to, “thus was it written.”

It is used immediately after a misspelling or improper word in someone’s quotation. Here’s an example.

“Yeah, I seen [sic] him taking the money,” the witness said.

The sic in brackets follows seen because it’s a grammar error; the speaker should have said saw. But in using the sic in that manner, it’s a way of saying that you are aware the word was used in error, but are merely accurately quoting the speaker, error intact.

It’s worth noting that this can sometimes come off as condescending or mocking, so you have to be careful in the tone of what you’re writing if that’s not your intent.

Sick (Definition #1)

The first meaning of sick is one everyone knows: a state of illness. If you have a cold, you may be too sick to come to work on a given day, although your employer may ask for a note from the doctor if you call out sick for more than one day.

Sick (Definition #2)

The alternate meaning of sick, which has become more popular with younger folks, is one of those curious instances in which a word takes on a meaning that seems the opposite its more well-known meaning.

An example of this is the word terrific. When most people hear the word terrific these days, they associate it as a positive: something that’s terrific is great or spectacular. But there was a time that terrific meant dreadful or horrible, based on the Latin terrere, which meant to “fill with fear.”

Consider the lyric from the Christmas song, “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays:”

From Atlantic to Pacific
Gee the traffic is terrific!

This means the traffic is horrible or heavy, not light.

Another famous example of that word’s now-archaic use came in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945. Then-President Franklin Roosevelt was posing for a portrait when he said, “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.” Within moments, he slumped forward in his chair and died of a cerebral hemorrage.

Like terrific, sick now has a secondary meaning that has an opposite connotation. It now means particularly cool or hip. When a younger person says something is really sick, they’re describing something they think is awesome. Older folks, in their youth, might have used words like “radical” or “gnarley.” Every generation has a few such strange meaning reassignments, it seems.


So with all those meanings attributed to just two words, you have to be careful to make sure you’re writing the proper one.

Using sic the wrong way might just make a grammar enthusiast sick.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.