Friday, January 23, 2009


This small Latin word has come up in two different contexts in the last week, a sure clue from the gods, or at least from the control panel of the simulation we are all living in, that it's time to do a little post about it. The first time was in a passing reference to Lincoln's assassination, when John Wilkes Booth is reported to have shouted "Sic semper tyrannis!", or "Thus always with tyrants!", a good thought unfortunately very misapplied to his particular situation. It turns out that it is also the motto of the state of Virginia, which frankly, I feel they might have wanted to change up a bit after Booth's misappropriation.

The other sighting was in a way with which I am more familiar, yet really fairly ignorant of all the same. This is when you cite a word or phrase and then say sic. Now the way I always more or less read this is to say to myself, this word or phrase is spelled or even perhaps grammatically wrong, but we all take the meaning anyway, and we are not going to clean up the original just to make the whole thing look better. I am afraid that whenever I see this, I also read the word 'sick' into it, so my gloss is something like 'this is the sickly version, but please take no offense here, as there is nothing we can do about it'.

I am not sure how this 'sic' squares with the first one, which means something like 'thus' or 'so'. I'll do a little check now, but please feel free to elucidate the whole thing further...

Apparently the second type of 'sic' does still mean 'thus' or 'so', but it's kind of an emphatic use, saying something like, yes, it looks wrong, well, pathetically so, really, but it's staying in. In other words, it's not a typo, it's deliberate, so don't get on my case about it,I know what I'm doing here...Yeah, short word with a lot of baggage.


  1. 'this is the sickly version, but please take no offense here, as there is nothing we can do about it'.
    - that's a very lucid way of putting across the meaning. I can perfectly picture the accompanying sneer and downturn of the mouth.

  2. I wonder when sic acquired its sneering connotation. In theory, all it means is "thus," as in, "the passage was thus in the source that I quoted" without the additional "Boy, what an ignorant jerk" connotation that it has acquired today.

    My own newspaper, back when it had the luxury of pretending to care about style, stipulated that "sic' was to be used only to indicate factual errors in quoted material.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  3. I expect the snobby connotations really came about because there was a time when all American high schools did study Latin--I know my Dad did in public school--but by the time I went to school, you could not have studied Latin in a regular California public high school if you wanted to. So I do think many present day Americans look at Latin as being something highbrow and remote from them, and feel defensive whenever they come across it.

    On the other hand, though, I actually see the reverse defensiveness in the word too. It means, "I didn't just get it wrong. It's the person I'm quoting who got it wrong, so don't go thinking I'm an ignoramus."

    But there are also people such as I would assume you, Peter, who just have 'sic' available to them as part of their vocabulary, and could use it without either kind of defensiveness.

    I don't know that I have ever used it myself. Maybe I will try to do so.

  4. Well, "sic" is not the sort of word that likely crop up in anyone's daily vocabulary outside of scholarly or other professional contexts. In most situations, one might probably express one's intention less obtrusively than by using "sic." In journalism, it's useful when quoting important written documents that may, however, contain an error that a reader might otherwise attribute to the reporter.