The Grammarphobia Blog

How sick is this usage?

Q: In striking down California’s teacher-tenure system, a state judge, Rolf Treu, wrote that ineffective teachers had a “negative impact on a sick number of California students.” I’ve always considered this use of “sick” to mean “excessive” (or maybe “amazing”) to be slang, but now it will be in law books. When does a word stop being slang?

A: Judge Treu didn’t use the phrase “a sick number” in his tentative decision on June 10, 2014. He clearly wrote “a significant number,” but some news organizations got it wrong.

A news outlet that got it right was BloombergBusinessWeek, which reported  on June 12, 2014, about the judge’s ruling.

The Bloomberg reporter, Karen Weise, wrote that in the trial an expert testifying for the state said that “as many as 3 percent of California teachers—8,250 in all—are ‘grossly ineffective.’ ”

“Taken together,” she added, “the judge found that ‘the number of grossly ineffective teachers has a direct, real, appreciable, and negative impact on a significant number of California students now and well into the future.’ ”

A number of dictionaries recognize the use of “sick” as a slang term meaning excellent or impressive. But none of them say “sick” has ever meant numerous or excessive.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides several quotations, from the early 1980s onward, in which “sick” means excellent, impressive, or risky.

The earliest example is from a 1983 typescript on campus slang compiled at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “Sick, unbelievably good: The Fleetwood Mac concert was sick.”

This later example is from a 2002 issue of U.S. News & World Report: “ ‘That’s siiiick!’ gushes an admiring fan.”

Today, the usage is generally found in reference to skateboarding and surfing, the OED says.

Over the years, there have been many other meanings associated with “sick.” One of the better-known is the colloquial use of “sick” to describe an unpleasant brand of humor.

The earliest OED citation is from Punch in 1959: “The prototype of sick jokes is one that goes ‘But apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’ ”

“Sick” has also been used as a slang term to describe a drug addict who craves a fix or who’s suffering from withdrawal, a usage that Green’s Dictionary of Slang has traced back to 1938.

Another use of “sick,” to mean disgusted or mortified, dates from 1850, the OED says.

Yet another, which dates back to Old English and is still very much with us today, is described this way in the OED:

“Deeply affected by some strong feeling, as (a) sorrow, (b) longing, (c) envy, (d) repugnance or loathing, producing effects similar or comparable to those of physical ailments.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from The Fates of the Apostles, by the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf. (The OED dates the poem to 975, but it could have been written as far back as the 800s.)

The opening lines in Old English have been translated as “Sorrowful at the end of my journey and sick at heart, I discovered this song.”

The original and still most common meaning “sick”—that is, ill or ailing—predates that poem by a century.

The earliest known use is from King Aelfred’s ninth-century translation of a sixth-century work, The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius.

In modern English the passage reads, “As it is the custom of physicians to say, when they see a sick man.”

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