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Fetch with extreme prejudice?

Dear Word Detective:  I noticed how odd the word “siccing” looked in the newspaper and can’t help but wonder from where the verb “to sic,” as “to sic a dog on someone,” came from.  It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with “sic” used in the form “[sic]”. — Judith Milgram.

The reason that “sic” in the sense of “order your dog to attack someone” seems a bit disconnected from the “sic” you sometimes see added as a notation to a quotation is that they are two separate and completely unrelated words.

I was intrigued by your mention of seeing “siccing” in your newspaper (because it seemed so informal), so I plugged the word into Google News and came up with ten results.  Two of them concerned dog owners using their dogs to attack or intimidate other people (“Miranda denies siccing his dog on the cops,” Gothamist, 1/22/10), but the rest employ “siccing” in a metaphorical sense to mean “to incite a person to attack or confront another” as in, for instance, a basketball game (“Jacobson took turns siccing guards Kwadzo Ahelegbe and Anthony James at Josh Young,” Des Moines Register).  “Sic” can even be used to mean “assign or encourage a person to perform a task,” as in “Faced with a high error rate, Bob sicced Joann on the challenge of bringing it down.”

The key to tracing “sic” in this “gonna get you” sense is that the original (and still common) spelling of the verb is “sick” (“Seems some of the boys … sicked the dogs on him,” 1899).  But this verb is not related to “sick” meaning “ill.”  It’s actually a dialectical English pronunciation of the verb “to seek,” used in a now largely obsolete sense of “to find and attack.”  (Retrievers are also traditionally commanded “to seek dead,” meaning to find and bring back game that has been shot.)  This “find and attack” sense of “seek” is very old (it occurs in Beowulf), but the “sick” spelling (and pronunciation) variant is surprisingly recent, dating only to the mid-19th century.

“Sic” in the other sense you mention is simply the Latin word for “so” or “thus,” most often used, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, as “a parenthetical insertion used in printing quotations or reported utterances to call attention to something anomalous or erroneous in the original, or to guard against the supposition of misquotation.”  If, for instance, I am quoting a letter sent in by a reader in which I am denounced as “a blistering idiot,” I would probably put “sic” in brackets after “blistering” to indicate that I am typing it just as the reader did (and to signal that I know he meant “blithering”).  “Sic” is a useful little device, as long as it isn’t overused.  Deploying “[sic]” when one simply disagrees with, or wishes to make fun of, the original author’s choice of words is rightly considered a cheap shot.

Paste Eater


Dear Word Detective:  When and how did the expression “paste-eaters” come into usage?  That’s one of the funniest, but apt, expressions I’ve heard in a long time! — Eric D. Cohen.

Funny and apt, yes, but also perhaps a little bit cruel and unfair.  After all, there are worse things to eat than paste, and very few people eat so much paste that they could be accused of depriving others.  Paste eating is also usually a very quiet habit, inasmuch as it is difficult to babble with one’s mouth full of paste.  Of course, that leaves us with the problem of explaining the deafening cacophony of political debate in the US, in which paste eaters seem to play a leading role.

A “paste eater” in the original literal sense is a small schoolchild (usually male) who develops a fondness for the taste of the white paste traditionally used by students in the lower grades to glue bits of construction paper together.  Usually kept in small pots with a brush attached to the underside of the lid, the paste invariably ends up on everything but the paper, especially one’s fingers, and most kids become familiar with the taste.  (I thought it tasted awful, personally, though I loved the smell of rubber cement, which may explain a lot.)  But there was almost always one kid in the class who regarded paste as a barfly regards salted peanuts, and would surreptitiously eat big globs of the stuff when the teacher wasn’t looking.  Such behavior was considered weird even by the liberal standards of second grade, and the paste eater, who was almost always weird in several other respects, was usually shunned as the class “nerd” or “dork.”

Probably the most famous “paste eater” in popular culture today is Ralph Wiggum, a character on The Simpsons TV series.  A cheerfully clueless eight-year old known for his bizarre proclamations (“I found a moon rock in my nose!”), Ralph has been caught on several occasions eating paste and is often depicted with a pot of paste in his hand.  According to the show’s website, “Despite his fractured English, paste eating and occasional ringworm, Ralph has lots of friends — all imaginary,” but for a paste eater, Ralph is well treated.  In the real world, “paste eater” has long been derogatory shorthand for someone regarded as mentally deficient, emotionally maladjusted, and socially ostracized.  An adult described as a “paste eater” is someone considered not only clueless and uncool, but extremely stupid as well.

Just when “paste eater” entered the general slang vocabulary is unclear.  A book about one-room schoolhouses in the early 20th century, titled “Schoolhouses of Minnesota” (available at Google Books), contains a detailed reminiscence of paste eating, so the phenomenon and epithet have probably been around since the 19th century.  As popular slang, “paste eater” really only became popular with the growth of the internet in the 1990s and the rise of political blogs on which “paste eater” became an instantly understandable way to slam the opposition.  As a derogatory slur, “paste eater” has the advantage of being nearly universally understood, and will be as long as small children and paste are together when the teacher’s back is turned.