Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

The Difference Between Ill and Sick


Initially, ill and sick appear to be synonymous with one another, giving the reader the same message.  Someone is not well.  They are similar in meaning but have clear differences in their usage.1  It is important to get to know each word in its own right to begin to understand the differences in their everyday use.  The word ill tends to be used in a more formal setting describing long term illness and diseases.  The word sick, on the other hand, is less formal and describes short term diseases and ailments.  Sick is especially used to describe a feeling of nausea and desire to vomit, to be sick.

In writing circles the less formal, casual use of sick is more likely to be used by Americans5 while it is said that the English prefer the formal use of the word ill.  Sick describes some nouns very well like a sick dog, sick leave or airsick, carsick and seasick.  To say ill leave or car ill for instance would not sound right, just as mentally ill and ill health in their formal capacity sound and are correct due to the more serious implications.  If one should say mentally sick or sick health the words would not have the same formal impact or closeness to medical terminology.  It is clear that the more one knows about these two words and the more they are used, the easier it will be to understands their differences and use them correctly.

Finding out about ……ill:

  • Dictionary meaning:3
  1. ill – (adjective) not well, not normal, unsound of body or mind.
  2. ill – (adverb)
  3. ill – (noun) ill as an item ie. Good and ill .
  4. ill – (prefix) bad or not suitable ill-prepared, ill-tempered.
  5. I’ll – is a contraction for I will and NOT to be confused with ill.
  • Parts of speech – using the word in a sentence:

ill as an adjective – The ill mannered boy was rude and unfriendly..

Suffering and causing harm makes ill effects, ill feelings, ill health.

ill as an adverb – The student could ill afford the rent for the flat.

To affect something badly leads to speak ill, bode ill, ill afford.

ill as a noun – Mary is unkind but I wish her no ill.

Something bad that can affect someone an unfortunate event.

ill as a prefix – The professor was ill-prepared for his lecture on fossils.

The prefix makes the word mean bad or not suitable.

I’ll – so as not to confuse this in context.  I’ll go to town to tomorrow afternoon.

  • Synonyms: Synonyms for ill include ailing, feverish, unwell, unfit, unhealthy, poorly
  • Idioms and other language uses of ill.

The word ill dates back to the middle ages and etymologists tell us that ill is related to evil. Etymology, 5 the study and origin of words, sheds a lot of interesting light into the meaning and the history of words. The word ill, coming from the word for evil, helps readers to understand that ill-formed and ill-advised mean badly formed and to be given bad advice.

If you are mentally ill you may suffer from maladies of the mind. Mental illness is not usually described as mental sickness.  However, you can be seen to be sick in the head as a result of your mental affliction. When your body is not well it can influence your mind and upset the balance of body and mind making you physically and mentally ill.

A well-known idiom using ill is ‘an ill wind blows nobody any good.’9  Wind, especially tornadoes can cause a lot of damage.  In spite of damage and destruction there is still good that comes out of the disaster.  Jobs are created perhaps, or people get houses rebuilt.  The feeling is that when bad things happen there can be a positive outcome. However, an ill wind that blows nobody any good is an event that is very negative and nobody benefits. The idiom of the ill wind is something happens, or could happen, that causes hurt or harm to everyone.  It is an ill wind linking ill to the evil or bad connotation of the word.

Finding out about …..  sick:

  • Dictionary meaning:1
  1. sick – (verb) the physical action of being sick, to throw up.
  2. Sick – (adjective) describing something that is not well.
  3. sick _ (adverb) sickly a way of feeling unwell.
  4. Sick – (noun) the actual vomit or sick.
  5. Sick – (slang) meaning cool or awesome.
  • Parts of speech using the word in a sentence:

Sick as a verb – The boy was violently sick after eating too much rich food.

Actually being sick after you are affected by something that did not agree with you.

Sick as an adjective – The vet had to operate on the sick dog.

The word sick describes the dog that is not well.

Sick as an adverb – Mary’s movements were sickly and her arms were limp as she lay in bed.

The way Mary acts is described as sickly.

Sick as a noun – Poor John stood in the sick that was left by the dog vomiting on the floor.

The actual vomit is named as sick.

Sick as a slang expression – The rowdy teenagers said their party was sick.

Actually they meant that it was a cool or a great party.

  • Synonyms:

Unhealthy, queasy, morbid, ailing, feeble, nauseous.

  • Idioms and abstract use of sick2

There are many idioms and abstract uses for the word sick. This is probably due to the fact that sick is the less formal of the two words in terms of English usage.

You can read about being sick and tired of something.  There are sick jokes and being sick to your stomach or sick with fear.  Sick to death and worried sick are also idioms showing how worried a person can be.

Then there are forms of motion sickness like air sick, car sick, sea sick. All these expressions relate to types of malady. These types of sickness usually cause the victim to vomit.

Another less known version of sick, actually spelt sic, comes from seek and means to set something onto something else.  You can sic your dog onto a robber or intruder. ‘Sic’em’ is the actual expression used to get a dog to attack.  This command is easier to say than ‘attack’ for instance because the sound of the sss and k are clearer for a dog to discriminate and respond to. 7

Sic is also used to denote a mistake, grammatical or typo, that has been made in a quote. The note ‘sic’ tells the reader that the error is actually part of the quote and the mistake was made in the original quote. Sic comes from the Latin meaning so, thus or in this way.

In conclusion……. Where does the difference between ill and sick lie?

Similar, but not the same, has to be the final answer.  It is only through reading and general usage of the two words that an educated decision can be made. Experience the words in as many different situations as possible. Read, write and remember.

On a website called English.stackexchange2 there are interesting comments about the English language, grammar and spelling. ‘Fumblefingers’, a contributor says:

‘I am not sure if it is more normal to feel sick when you are ill or feel ill when you are sick.’

The ease with which these two similar words can be confused is highlighted here. ‘Fumblefingers’ puts the two words into one sentence linking them together but not really explaining either of the words.  However, if you keep in mind that illness represents serious pain and suffering while sick is more of a common irritation, then the difference between the two words can become clearer.

French Novelist, Marcel Proust says of illness…5

‘Illness is the most heeded of doctors: to goodness and wisdom we only make promises;

 pain we obey.’

American editor and novelist, Charles Simmons writes about sickness…5

‘Sickness is the vengeance of nature for the violation of her laws.’

The military wisdom of politician Winston Churchill could perhaps be applied to these two words.8  He spoke of different military disciplines by comparing them all at one table and decided that the common element would be ‘the sum of all their fears.’ Perhaps that is the conclusion overall for the two words ill and sick.  Review them together and what do you find?  The ‘sum of all OUR fears.’   Plain and simply, …. not feeling your best.

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