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From Middle English seekly, sekely, siklich, sekeliche, equivalent to sick +‎ -ly. Possibly a modification of Old English sīcle (sickly) and/or derived from Old Norse sjúkligr (sickly). Cognate with Dutch ziekelijk, Middle High German siechlich, Danish sygelig, Swedish sjuklig, Icelandic sjúklegur.


  • IPA(key): /ˈsɪkli/
  • (file)
  • Rhymes: -ɪkli


sickly (comparative sicklier, superlative sickliest)

  1. Frequently ill or in poor health.
    a sickly child
    • 1759, Tobias Smollett, letter dated 16 March, 1759, in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, London: Charles Dilly, 1791, Volume 1, p. 190,[1]
      [...] the boy is a sickly lad, of a delicate frame, and particularly subject to a malady in his throat, which renders him very unfit for his Majesty’s service.
    • 1813 January 27, [Jane Austen], chapter 14, in Pride and Prejudice: [], volumes (please specify |volume=I to III), London: [] [George Sidney] for T[homas] Egerton, [], →OCLC, page 151:
      She is unfortunately of a sickly constitution, which has prevented her making that progress in many accomplishments which she could not otherwise have failed of;
    • 1982, Anne Tyler, chapter 1, in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant[2], New York: Ballantine, published 2008, page 4:
      [...] the sharp-scented bottle of crystals that sickly Cousin Bertha had carried to ward off fainting spells.
  2. Not in good health; (somewhat) sick.
  3. Characterized by poor or unhealthy growth. (of a plant)
    • 1931, Pearl S. Buck, chapter 27, in The Good Earth[6], New York: Modern Library, published 1944, page 236:
      [...] the good wheat on this land had turned sickly and yellow.
    • 1962, Rachel Carson, chapter 6, in Silent Spring[7], Boston: Houghton Mifflin, page 79:
      With the aid of the marigolds the roses flourished; in the control beds they were sickly and drooping.
  4. Appearing ill, infirm or unhealthy; giving the appearance of illness.
    a sickly pallor
    • 1782, Frances Burney, Cecilia, London: T. Payne and Son, and T. Cadell, Volume 1, Book 1, Chapter 9, p. 121,[8]
      [...] she exhibited a countenance so wretched, and a complection so sickly, that Cecilia was impressed with horror at the sight.
    • 1791, Elizabeth Inchbald, chapter 12, in A Simple Story[9], volume 3, London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson, pages 161–162:
      [...] he saw him arrive with his usual florid appearance: had he come pale and sickly, Sandford had been kind to him; but in apparent good health and spirits, he could not form his mouth to tell him he was “glad to see him.”
    • 1961, Joseph Heller, chapter 39, in Catch-22[10], New York: Dell:
      Yossarian [...] could not wipe from his mind the excruciating image of the barefoot boy with sickly cheeks [...]
  5. Shedding a relatively small amount of light; (of light) not very bright.
    Synonyms: faint, pale, wan
    • 1665, John Dryden, The Indian Emperour[11], London: H. Herringman, published 1667, act II, page 17:
      The Moon grows sickly at the sight of day.
    • 1757, Thomas Gray, Odes[12], Dublin: G. Faulkner and J. Rudd, page 5:
      Night, and all her sickly dews,
      Her Spectres wan, and Birds of boding cry,
    • 1849, Currer Bell [pseudonym; Charlotte Brontë], chapter 5, in Shirley. A Tale. [], volumes (please specify |volume=I to III), London: Smith, Elder and Co., [], →OCLC:
      Mr. Moore haunted his mill, his mill-yard, his dye-house, and his warehouse till the sickly dawn strengthened into day.
    • 1870–1871 (date written), Mark Twain [pseudonym; Samuel Langhorne Clemens], chapter XXXII, in Roughing It, Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Company [et al.], published 1872, →OCLC, page 235:
      [The match] lit, burned blue and sickly, and then budded into a robust flame.
    • 2006, Sarah Waters, The Night Watch[13], London: Virago, 1944, section 2, p. 226:
      Duncan saw the men through a haze of wire and cigarette smoke and sickly, artificial light;
  6. Lacking intensity or vigour.
    Synonyms: faint, feeble, insipid, weak
    a sickly smile
    • 1730, James Thomson, The Tragedy of Sophonisba[14], London: A. Millar, act II, scene 1, page 19:
      What man of soul would [...] run,
      Day after day, the still-returning round
      Of life’s mean offices, and sickly joys;
      But in compassion to mankind?
    • 1779, Hannah More, The Fatal Falsehood[15], London: T. Cadell, act II, page 27:
      [...] my credulous heart
      [...] fondly loves to cherish
      The feeble glimmering of a sickly hope.
    • 1961, Robert A. Heinlein, chapter 19, in Stranger in a Strange Land, New York: Avon, →OCLC:
      He held a vast but carefully concealed distaste for all things American [] their manners, their bastard architecture and sickly arts … and their blind, pathetic, arrogant belief in their superiority long after their sun had set.
  7. Associated with poor moral or mental well-being.
    Synonym: unhealthy
  8. Tending to produce nausea.
    Synonyms: nauseating, sickening
    a sickly smell; sickly sentimentality
  9. Overly sweet.
    Synonyms: cloying, saccharine
  10. (obsolete) Marked by the occurrence of illness or disease (of a period of time).
    • c. 1599–1602 (date written), William Shakespeare, “The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke”, in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies [] (First Folio), London: [] Isaac Iaggard, and Ed[ward] Blount, published 1623, →OCLC, [Act III, scene iii]:
      This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.
    • a. 1768, Laurence Sterne, undated letter in Original Letters, London: Logographic Press, 1788, pp. 110-111,[21]
      [...] if I thought the sentiments of your last letter were not the sentiments of a sickly moment—if I could be made to believe, for an instant, that they proceeded from you, in a sober, reflecting condition of your mind—I should give you over as incurable,
    • 1798, Thomas Malthus, chapter 7, in An Essay on the Principle of Population[22], London: J. Johnson, page 115:
      [...] the three years immediately following the last period [...] were years so sickly that the births were sunk to 10, 229, and the burials raised to 15, 068.
  11. (obsolete) Tending to produce disease or poor health.
    Synonyms: insalubrious, unhealthy, unwholesome
    a sickly autumn; a sickly climate

Derived terms[edit]



sickly (third-person singular simple present sicklies, present participle sicklying, simple past and past participle sicklied)

  1. (transitive, archaic, literary) To make (something) sickly.
    • c. 1599–1602 (date written), William Shakespeare, “The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke”, in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies [] (First Folio), London: [] Isaac Iaggard, and Ed[ward] Blount, published 1623, →OCLC, [Act III, scene i]:
      Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
      And thus the native hue of resolution
      Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
    • 1763, Charles Churchill, An Epistle to William Hogarth[24], London: for the author, page 12:
      Thy Drudge contrives, and in our full career
      Sicklies our hopes with the pale hue of Fear;
    • 1840, S. M. Heaton, edited by George Heaton, Thoughts on the Litany, by a naval officer’s orphan daughter[25], London: William Edward Painter, Section 4, p. 58:
      [] a cancer gnawing at the root of happiness, defeating every aim at permanent good in this world, and sicklying all sublunary joys []
    • 1862, Gail Hamilton, “Men and Women”, in Country Living and Country Thinking[26], Boston: Ticknor and Fields, page 109:
      He evidently thinks the sweet little innocents never heard or thought of such a thing before, and would go on burying their curly heads in books, and sicklying their rosy faces with “the pale cast of thought” till the end of time []
    • 2000, Ninian Smart, chapter 9, in World Philosophies[27], New York: Routledge, page 207:
      Ockham was critical of so many of his fellows for sicklying over theology with the obscurities of philosophy.
  2. (intransitive, rare) To become sickly.
    • 1889, Samuel Cox, An Expositor’s Notebook, London: Richard D. Dickinson, 7th edition, Chapter 26, p. 364,[28]
      But the seven most prominent Apostles [] still hang together, their hearts tormented with eager yet sad questionings, their hopes fast sicklying over with the pale hues of doubt.


sickly (comparative more sickly, superlative most sickly)

  1. In a sick manner; in a way that reflects or causes sickness.
    sickly pale; to cough sickly
    • 1818, John Keats, Endymion[29], London: Taylor and Hessey, Book 2, lines 859-861, p. 93:
      [] he sickly guess’d
      How lone he was once more, and sadly press’d
      His empty arms together []
    • 1939, John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath[30], New York: Viking, published 1962, Chapter , p. 364:
      The dazed man stared sickly at Casy.
    • 1961, Bernard Malamud, A New Life[31], Penguin, published 1968, Chapter , p. 185:
      For ten brutal minutes he was in torment, then the pain gradually eased. He felt sickly limp but relieved, thankful for his good health.
    • 2010, Rowan Somerville, chapter 9, in The End of Sleep[32], New York: Norton, page 66:
      The creaseless horizontal face of the giant smiled sickly, leering.

Derived terms[edit]