December 09, 2003

Sic sic sic

The Latin word "(sic)" (meaning "thus") is a device in formal written English to indicate that the foregoing part of a quotation really is accurate, it's not a typo, that's really what the original said. Scholars use it with relish to quote passages from their enemies that contain revealing errors.

But it may not always be so simple to figure out whose error is being pointed out. A review by Edmund S. Morgan in the latest New York Review of Books (December 18, 2003, p.26) quotes Gore Vidal saying this about President Lincoln:

With his centralizing of all power at Washington this "reborn" (sic) union was ready for a world empire that has done us as little good as it has done the world we have made so many messes in.

But as I looked at that "(sic)", I realized I didn't know how to interpret it in this case.

Did it mean that Morgan was telling me that Vidal really said that, he really put "reborn" in scare quotes? Or was it in the original by Vidal, a sign put there by Vidal to say that Lincoln really did use the word "reborn"? (And for you reading this, the above instance of "(sic)" could conceivably have a third possible meaning: that Pullum is telling you it really does have "reborn" in quotes at that point in what Morgan wrote in the New York Review.)

One can only guess at the meaning, because "(sic)" is not used recursively. English does not provide for something like "With his centralizing of all power at Washington this "reborn" (sic) (sic) union was ready . . " to mean that Morgan vouches for the fact that Vidal really did interpolate "(sic)" in order to signal that he (Vidal) vouched for the fact that Lincoln really did use the word "reborn". You could invent a special notation along those lines and explain to the reader what you're doing (one "(sic)" for each quotation level, perhaps), but it isn't there in the structure of the language right now. I've never seen an iterated "(sic)", and would have trouble figuring out how to interpret such a sequence if I did see one.

The lesson is that while computer programming languages are designed for full explicitness about everything they can express, modern standard written English is not. There are limits to the extent to which you can avoid ambiguity, even given all of the context. But you knew that already.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 9, 2003 05:47 PM