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Sick as a dog

Q From Ehud Maimon in Jerusalem: I would appreciate it if you could help me find the origin of the expression sick as a dog.

A There are several expressions of the form sick as a ..., that date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Sick as a dog is actually the oldest of them, recorded from 1705; it is probably no more than an attempt to give force to a strongly worded statement of physical unhappiness. It was attached to a dog, I would guess, because dogs often seem to have been linked to things considered unpleasant or undesirable; down the years they have had an incredibly bad press, linguistically speaking (think of dog tired, dog in the manger, dog’s breakfast, go to the dogs, dog Latin — big dictionaries have long entries about all the ways that dog has been used in a negative sense).

At various times cats, rats and horses have been also dragged in to the expression, though an odd thing is that horses can’t vomit; one nineteenth-century writer did suggest that this version was used “when a person is exceedingly sick without vomiting”. The strangest member of the set was used by Jonathan Swift in 1731: “Poor Miss, she’s sick as a Cushion, she wants nothing but stuffing” (stop laughing at the back).

The modern sick as a parrot recorded from the 1970s — at one time much overused by British sportsmen as the opposite of over the moon — refers to a state of deep mental depression rather than physical illness; this perhaps comes from instances of parrots contracting psittacosis and passing it to their human owners.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 10 Jun. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 10 June 2000.