A Jocular Look at the Poorly Sick

Not long after we moved here, while looking to buy a get-well card at a stationery stall at Guildford’s weekly market I ran across cards that read “Sorry to hear you’ve been poorly sick”. That seemed rather hostile; it’s bad enough to be sick, but to be accused of not doing it well adds insult to illness.

I’m not used to Americans using poorly in the sense of “not feeling well”, though I’m sure some do. In a rare moment of serendipity, when I first started typing out some ideas about poorly, I ran smack into an American example. The Saturday Play on BBC Radio 4 last week was “Farewell My Lovely”, Radio 4 being in the middle of a celebration of Raymond Chandler, whose P.I. character Philip Marlowe rarely gets through a story without being bashed on the back of the head.  This time an unknown assailant knocked him unconscious with a sap, and when later asked—by someone he probably would have described as a dame or a broad—“How’s your head?”, he answered “Poorly”.

Still, we don’t generally see poorly on US greeting cards (in the UK they are greetings cards), and I’ve never known any Americans to use poorly sick either in conversation or in print. A Google search, though, turns up many examples at British web sites, not only in health forums but in requests for help posted by people who say they have poorly sick computers, poorly sick web servers, and poorly sick cars.

On the other end of the health spectrum, some of my British friends are likely to say, if they’re healthy, that they’re “keeping well”.  This is a quality I ascribe to UHT milk, not to human beings. A recent message from a friend who had been ill began with “I generally keep quite well, but…”.  Perhaps she wasn’t refrigerated once opened.

If you don’t keep well, in either the US or the UK you might say you were sick as a dog, but only in the UK would it be common (in the sense of what’s ordinary, rather than what’s vulgar) to describe yourself as sick as a parrot. Why a parrot? I don’t know so I looked it up; the dictionary tells me this is “a fanciful catchphrase, chiefly used joc”. If I were well enough to be joc, I wouldn’t need a phrase to tell people how sick I was.

And if you really want fanciful, I suggest the phrase sick as a cushion, which also appears in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary, the granddaddy of all dictionaries) along with sick as a cat and sick as a horse (though the example for sick as a horse explicitly says the phrase is vulgar).

But sick as a cushion? Well, the example the OED gives is from one of Jonathan Swift’s satires, and the context is this:  Poor Miss, she’s sick as a Cushion, she wants nothing but stuffing which, given the British slang use of stuffing that’s clearly intended here, is pretty darned vulgar.  Having said that, I know people are going to ask me what stuffing means in this sense, which leaves me with the problem of how to phrase it politely.  I resort this time to the listing for stuff in my dictionary of UK slang, which gives verb, slang, taboo: to copulate.  No doubt Swift was being joc.

Now having defined that term, I hesitate to say I’ve been unwell recently without adding quickly that I was not as sick as a cushion.  But I have indeed been poorly sick, and so haven’t been uploading blog posts as often as usual. I apologize and hope to resume normal service soon. In the meantime, you can see some examples of authentic British greetings cards for the poorly that I’ve used as illustrations here, all taken from card designs purchased from http://www.craftsuprint.com.



Filed under Language

9 responses to “A Jocular Look at the Poorly Sick

  1. Sorry to hear you’ve been tautologically poorly sick. Hope you’re better well soon. I’ve never heard (or at least noticed) “poorly sick” before. I’ll have to listen out for it. I’ve also never heard “sick as a parrot” used other than metaphorically. Yes, I know “as a parrot” is a simile. I mean the “sick” bit. I have only heard it used by footballers to describe their feeling on having lost a match they expected to win; the opposite condition being “over the moon”.

    Having lived in England between the ages of 12 and 24, I wonder whether Raymond Chandler could be relied upon not to sprinkle traces of British English into his writing. Just wondering. I have never read any Chandler.

    • Sorry, Elliott — I saw Candida’s comment (below) re ‘sick as a parrot’ before I saw yours (they come to me via email) and when I read yours via my email reader I thought it had come in from Facebook! In any case, the reply below addresses the same issue, and yours is the comment I counted as the Facebook comment, one of the three–so far. (And as for the phrase only being used metaphorically, note the example below about the sick budgie–but yes, that was only a joke and I take your point!)

  2. Candida

    Sick as a parrot is never to do with health, as far as I know, it’s a more longwinded way of saying “gutted”. Poorly sick is sort of jokey too, a bit like “pretty please” as a phrase. Poorly sick puts you out of circulation but presents no real threat to your longer-term health. So I hope you really have been poorly sick, as opposed to just sick.

    • Yeah, yours is one of three such responses–one via Facebook, one via email, and yours here. I probably shouldn’t trust my faulty memory, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard ‘sick as a parrot’ used to mean actually being physically sick. The OED doesn’t specify, though they only give two examples, one of which is what you describe and the other is clearly a joke because it’s about a sick budgie anyway. My dictionary of UK slang–which was published in the US, so should I trust it? Dunno–gives as the first definition “spectacularly nauseous” and as the second “exceptionally dissatisfied”.

  3. MFC

    In my own American experience, “poorly” is not uncommon as a way of referring to a low-level illness. I think of it as old-fashioned and as a usage you might expect to hear in the rural Eastern Kentucky mountains. But, to my American ear, “poorly sick” sounds redundant.

  4. I have often wondered about “pretty please”. It would seem to a be literal translation of the German “bitte schoen”, in which case my guess is that it entered British English via German emigrants to the US i.e. that it made it into US English first and then crossed back over the Atlantic.

    What do you think about my hunch?
    Anyone got an authoritative source?

  5. I have kept this page open in a tab in Chrome and I’ve just noticed the tab title… “A Jocular Look at the Poo”.

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