“So the saying is, ‘Sick,’ but it’s not like, ‘Oh bro, that was sick,’ or ‘Are you okay? You look sick,’ it’s not like that. It’s kind of similar to ‘toolbag,’ you know, where it’s like you can’t really explain ‘toolbag,’ but if you see a toolbag walking down the street you’re like, ‘Whoa, that guy’s a fucking toolbag.’ So ‘sick’ is kind of like, it can be used in many different contexts, it’s kind of like ‘fuck’ can, where it’s kind of like, ‘Whoa, what the fuck!’ or it’s like, ‘Holy fucking shit, that was awesome.’ Um, so it’s something that [her ex-boyfriend] and his friends like kind of made up and I just like adopted through the years and it just like, it kind of makes you feel like weird inside, or like, ‘Whoa, that person’s getting really gross,’ or like the action that they’re doing is very . . . interesting, I guess, or like something that they said was very interesting, whether in a funny way or a bad way. So an example is, if someone said something really funny—or if someone was doing a really funny dance move, we could like point and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, ha ha ha, that person’s getting really sick right now.’ When it’s like ‘Oh, they’re doing something really interesting, like I’ve never seen that before, but we love it, it’s really funny.’ But then it can also be like, if someone says something wrong, where it’s like if [ex-boyfriend] and I got in a fight and I was like, ‘[Ex-boyfriend], what the fuck? Like you’re a fucking cheater!’ Then if [his] friends that they could be like, ‘Whoa, why are you getting so sick right now?’ . . . So it can be used to like, characterize someone’s statement, if that makes sense, or someone’s action in neither judging way or nonjudgmental way.”


The informant was a 21-year-old USC student who grew up in competitive snowboarding and has dabbled in CrossFit and other workout programs. She has been in a prominent sorority on campus since coming to USC and goes out every night of the weekend, as well as some nights of the week. I live with the informant and the interview took place in my room during one of the lengthy conversations we often have. The informant learned the use of this word from her ex-boyfriend. She uses it because she got in the habit of communicating with him and his friends and this is a common word in their group.


I think it’s interesting that this is a word that has already been adopted into colloquial usage, but which has a different meaning. Indeed, the meaning of ‘sick’ in this case is somewhere between the adjective meaning “cool” and the state of being meaning “ill.” It makes me wonder if this word first started being used as a code for people to say something was weird or interesting when everyone else around them thought they were saying it was cool. I also think it’s interesting that the informant thinks this phrase is neither judgmental nor nonjudgmental. It is as if the people using it are making commentary on someone else’s state of being, although I think there is some sort of judgment implied.