Fetch with extreme prejudice?

Dear Word Detective:  I noticed how odd the word “siccing” looked in the newspaper and can’t help but wonder from where the verb “to sic,” as “to sic a dog on someone,” came from.  It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with “sic” used in the form “[sic]”. — Judith Milgram.

The reason that “sic” in the sense of “order your dog to attack someone” seems a bit disconnected from the “sic” you sometimes see added as a notation to a quotation is that they are two separate and completely unrelated words.

I was intrigued by your mention of seeing “siccing” in your newspaper (because it seemed so informal), so I plugged the word into Google News and came up with ten results.  Two of them concerned dog owners using their dogs to attack or intimidate other people (“Miranda denies siccing his dog on the cops,” Gothamist, 1/22/10), but the rest employ “siccing” in a metaphorical sense to mean “to incite a person to attack or confront another” as in, for instance, a basketball game (“Jacobson took turns siccing guards Kwadzo Ahelegbe and Anthony James at Josh Young,” Des Moines Register).  “Sic” can even be used to mean “assign or encourage a person to perform a task,” as in “Faced with a high error rate, Bob sicced Joann on the challenge of bringing it down.”

The key to tracing “sic” in this “gonna get you” sense is that the original (and still common) spelling of the verb is “sick” (“Seems some of the boys … sicked the dogs on him,” 1899).  But this verb is not related to “sick” meaning “ill.”  It’s actually a dialectical English pronunciation of the verb “to seek,” used in a now largely obsolete sense of “to find and attack.”  (Retrievers are also traditionally commanded “to seek dead,” meaning to find and bring back game that has been shot.)  This “find and attack” sense of “seek” is very old (it occurs in Beowulf), but the “sick” spelling (and pronunciation) variant is surprisingly recent, dating only to the mid-19th century.

“Sic” in the other sense you mention is simply the Latin word for “so” or “thus,” most often used, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, as “a parenthetical insertion used in printing quotations or reported utterances to call attention to something anomalous or erroneous in the original, or to guard against the supposition of misquotation.”  If, for instance, I am quoting a letter sent in by a reader in which I am denounced as “a blistering idiot,” I would probably put “sic” in brackets after “blistering” to indicate that I am typing it just as the reader did (and to signal that I know he meant “blithering”).  “Sic” is a useful little device, as long as it isn’t overused.  Deploying “[sic]” when one simply disagrees with, or wishes to make fun of, the original author’s choice of words is rightly considered a cheap shot.

5 comments on this post.
  1. Magret:

    Very interesting! I was referred to your site when I looked up the word “sicked” today as I was pretty sure it was spelled “sicced” but I guess not. It was in a newspaper article today (7/12/12), which said the Anaheim policed sicked their dogs on a crowd of women and children — and it looked odd to me.

  2. Valaida Snow: selected recordings, 1935-1946, and gallery « Songbook:

    […] you didn’t even have no hair, I’d say “Sick ‘im on me. I don’t […]

  3. Dan S.:

    The first time I heard the command “sic ’em” given to a dog, I was scared out of my wits. I had just learned in school about “mad dogs” and the horrible consequences of rabies, and I thought that the command to the dog meant “make him sick”, that it was a “mad dog” and was being instructed to infect the intended victim (me) with rabies. Luckily, that was not the case, and no, I was not actually bitten at all.

  4. Chris:

    Came across “Need to sic the evil eye on someone….” here and came here to discover more about siccing! ????

  5. Sally Tuckey:

    Charles M Schulz often used sic in his Peanuts cartoons!

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