THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

01 April 2019

Recording of the week: well sick

This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

The widespread use among young speakers of sick [= 'great, excellent'] follows the pattern of several slang terms in which the conventional meaning is inverted by speakers who subsequently use it as an all-purpose term of approval. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records a similar process with wicked from the 1920s and bad from the 1950s onwards, for example.

Taken out of context this can, of course, lead to confusion between the generations as illustrated by a text message I once received from my then 18-year-old daughter. Having just seen one of her favourite bands at Reading Festival she texted: Peace just finished! fifth row! was sick! I chose to interpret this as good news.

Photograph of a message alert on a mobile phone

This positive meaning of sick was one of the most popular submissions to the Library's Evolving English WordBank, a crowd-sourced collection of dialect and slang created by members of the public in 2010/11, as illustrated by these two contributions, and is first recorded in the OED in 1983.

SICK [Manchester C1442/1917]

female (b.1987, Manchester): 'Sometimes with my friends I say that’s sick meaning that’s extremely good. I’ve got a feeling it comes from sort of Afro-Caribbean influences,  Asian British Asian influences as well, that’s where I seem to hear it the most.'

SICK [West Midlands C1442/1332]

male (b. West Midlands): 'One of the most common phrases I use is sick for something really good it’s extremely common between me and my mates we would say oh how was the gig last night ... oh it was sick.'

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