Guest Notes

Sic note

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

Google’s language skills (sic)

We all make mistakes. To quote the Augustan satirist Alexander Pope, ‘to err is humanistic’. But we also like to point out other people’s mistakes and in the written form we do this with ‘sic’, the term inserted into a sentence (in parentheses) to make it clear that the mistake is not ours. It is a word with Latin roots although its origins in the English language, as recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, are mistaken. According to the OED the first known appearance of it was in an Anglo-Saxon Reader of 1887, but I have found an instance of it in the 1876 edition of the same book. The OED, therefore, needs to correct its ‘1887’ (sic) citation for ‘sic’.

These days ‘sic’ is a pejorative, one that is put to best effect when quoting the mistake of an opponent. Its appearance on the page as an obligatory editorial intervention only adds to its effectiveness. Journalists sometimes use it poorly, as say, when a footballer is quoted, ‘I thought I played the game of me (sic) life today’. This kind of use of ‘sic’ is seen mostly from younger journalists who have not yet matured into their craft, or those of any age or level of experience at the national broadcaster. But when used to draw attention to the mistake of a deserving rival, the reader takes as much pleasure from a ‘sic’ as the writer does in inserting it. Even the practice of bending a line of argument, normally frowned upon, tends to be excused if it is done to draw the quote in.

But recently I came across a new use of ‘sic’. I typed ‘sic’ into Google and was led to a definition of it in a resource called the Google Dictionary. The dictionary entry reads: ‘adverb: sic, used in brackets after a copied or quoted word that appears odd or erroneous to show that the word is quoted exactly as it stands in the original, as in a story must hold a child’s interest and “enrich his (sic) life”.’

What is this? Is this Google saying that ‘his’ should have been ‘his or her’, or ‘her or his’, or ‘their’, or ‘zir’? Seemingly yes, but more: this is Google, the omnipotent one, affixing its progressive seal on this gender pronoun speech code and doing so in a backdoor manner. There were numberless typographical or other errors available to them to illustrate a ‘sic’ but they chose the gender pronoun ‘his’, and the format, as a dictionary entry for ‘sic’ rather than a statement on gender pronoun usage, offers no room for compromise. It does not permit of a footnote, for instance, explaining that this kind of questioning of gender pronouns is a recent phenomenon and one which does not have uniform support. In one Google swoop, quicker than you can say ‘Jordan Peterson’, it is as though all debate is over and people like myself who prefer the prior practices are personae non grata.

The one consolation is that we personae non gratae are not small in number. The oppressed ‘minority’, we can be likened to the wild Irish Catholics of centuries past when Ireland was governed by the Protestant Ascendancy, which was situated in Dublin and the surrounding area known as the Pale. The Protestant Ascendancy amounted to about five per cent of the population yet the Catholics throughout the rest of the country had no rights, were subjected to penal laws and had their own ancient language which the five per cent were working to extinguish.

From beyond the Pale, then, let it be said that this dictionary entry shows only that, when it comes to proficiency in gender pronouns, Google should stick to search engines. It would be hypocritical of Google, for instance, to replace ‘his’ with ‘his or her’ or ‘her or his’, because both are affirmations of the binary. The pronoun ‘their’ would not work either because it should most often only be used when the subject is in the plural. ‘The boy’s reading enriched their life’, for example, should draw a ‘sic’. Then the only other option is ‘zir’ and associated pronouns such as ‘ze’, ‘zim’, and ‘hir’. These have a longer-than-expected history. According to the OED, unless it is mistaken, ‘zir’ dates back to 1993. But this only illustrates that through more than a quarter of a century ‘zir’ has never progressed beyond the theoretical. So distant is ‘zir’ from everyday language that not even Google’s fellow giant in the digital world, Microsoft, recognises it. When I type ‘zir’ into Microsoft Word I get the red squiggly underline signifying a mistake.

Google also shows itself to be racist, sexist and heterophobic because ‘his’ is the only gender pronoun available to them that would have drawn a ‘sic’. If the sentence had read, ‘a story must hold a child’s interest and “enrich her life”,’ it would have avoided a ‘sic’, we can safely assume, and likewise if the subject of the sentence had been specifically identified as a Muslim male child, a coloured male child, a homosexual child or a trans child.

But will truths such as these ever penetrate the walls of Google and co.? Not in the foreseeable future, it seems. Despite the numbers being on our side we find ourselves little more than onlookers as the world we have always known is supplanted by a fatuous charade. One option available to us is to use Google’s own tactic in response to some of the ‘truths’ imposed on us every day, such as: ‘progressives are a tolerant people who celebrate diversity of opinion (sic)’; ‘the public school system adequately educates students in the principles and practice of democracy (sic)’; ‘the Western world’s actions on carbon emissions are watched by China and India with admiration and envy (sic)’; ‘a white, Christian, heterosexual male is not at any disadvantage when applying for a job or promotion (sic)’, and so on. We need to summon the spirit of the wild Irish Catholics.

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