• IPA: /ˈsɪkli/

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,
      [...] 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, Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, London: T. Egerton, Volume 1, Chapter 14, p. 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, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, New York: Ballantine, 2008, Chapter 1, p. 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.
    • circa 1599 William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (play), Act II, Scene 4,
      Yes, bring me word, boy, if thy lord look well,
      For he went sickly forth:
    • 1611, King James Version of the Bible, Epistles to the Corinthians 11.30,
      For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep [i.e. have died].
    • 1782, Samuel Johnson, letter dated 20 March, 1782, in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, London: Charles Dilly, 1791, Volume 2, p. 419,
      The season was dreary, I was sickly, and found the friends sickly whom I went to see.
    • 1850, Charlotte Brontë, letter dated 29 April, 1850, in Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, London: Smith, Elder, 1857, Chapter 6, p. 157,
      Papa continues far from well; he is often very sickly in the morning,
    • 1958, Muriel Spark, Robinson, New York: New Directions, 2003, Chapter 9, p. 128,
      Miguel’s temperature was normal that day, though he was still sickly and restless.
  3. (of a plant) Characterized by poor or unhealthy growth.
    • 1931, Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth, New York: Modern Library, 1944, Chapter 27, p. 236,
      [...] the good wheat on this land had turned sickly and yellow.
    • 1962, Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Chapter 6, p. 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 (Burney novel), London: T. Payne and Son, and T. Cadell, Volume 1, Book 1, Chapter 9, p. 121,
      [...] she exhibited a countenance so wretched, and a complection so sickly, that Cecilia was impressed with horror at the sight.
    • 1791, Elizabeth Inchbald, A Simple Story (novel), London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson, Volume 3, Chapter 12, p. 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, Catch-22, New York: Dell, Chapter 39,
      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, London: H. Herringman, 1667, Act II, p. 17,
      The Moon grows sickly at the sight of day.
    • 1757, Thomas Gray, Odes, Dublin: G. Faulkner and J. Rudd, p. 5,
      Night, and all her sickly dews,
      Her Spectres wan, and Birds of boding cry,
    • 1849, Charlotte Brontë (as Currer Bell), Shirley (novel), London: Smith, Elder, Volume 1, Chapter 5, p. 85,
      Mr. Moore haunted his mill, his mill-yard, his dye-house, and his warehouse till the sickly dawn strengthened into day.
    • 1872, Mark Twain, Roughing It, Hartford: American Publishing Company, Chapter 32, p. 235,
      [The match] lit, burned blue and sickly, and then budded into a robust flame.
    • 2006, Sarah Waters, The Night Watch (Waters novel), 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 (poet), The Tragedy of Sophonisba, London: A. Millar, Act II, Scene 1, p. 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, London: T. Cadell, Act II, p. 27,
      [...] my credulous heart
      [...] fondly loves to cherish
      The feeble glimmering of a sickly hope.
    • 1961, Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, Chapter 19,
      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.
    Synonyms: unhealthy
    • 1766, Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield, London: F. Newbery, Chapter 3, p. 27,
      The slightest distress, whether real or fictitious, touched him to the quick, and his soul laboured under a sickly sensibility of the miseries of others.
    • 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, London: J. Johnson, Part 1, Chapter 3, p. 77,
      These were not the ravings of imbecility, the sickly effusions of distempered brains;
    • 1890, Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, London: Ward, Lock, 1891, Chapter 2, p. 33,
      Don’t squander the gold of your days [...] trying to improve the hopeless failure, or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common, and the vulgar. These are the sickly aims, the false ideals, of our age.
    • 1964, Saul Bellow, Herzog (novel), New York: Viking, p. 319,
      [...] I know how you came to despise all that sickly Wagnerian idiocy and bombast.
    • 2018, Anna Burns, Milkman (novel), London: Faber & Faber, part 4,
      That he had some sickly compulsion neurosis, they said, was very plain for all eyes to see.
  8. Tending to produce nausea.
    Synonyms: nauseating, sickening
    a sickly smell; sickly sentimentality
    • 1865, Christina Rossetti, “Amor Mundi” in Goblin Market; The Prince’s Progress; and Other Poems, London: Macmillan, 1875, p. 286,
      ‘Oh, what is that glides quickly where velvet flowers grow thickly,
      Their scent comes rich and sickly?’—‘A scaled and hooded worm.’
    • 1884, Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, New York: C. L. Webster, 1885, Chapter 23, pp. 197-198,
      [...] it warn’t no perfumery neither, not by a long sight. I smelt sickly eggs by the barrel, and rotten cabbages, and such things;
    • 1895, H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, London: Heinemann, Chapter 4, p. 32,
      [...] the sickly jarring and swaying of the machine [...] had absolutely upset my nerve.
    • 1944, Katherine Anne Porter, “The Leaning Tower” in The Leaning Tower and Other Stories, New York: Harcourt, Brace, p. 173,
      He had scanty discouraged hair the color of tow#Etymology_2|tow, and a sickly, unpleasant breath.
  9. Overly sweet.
    Synonyms: cloying, saccharine
    • 1922, Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (novel), New York: Harcourt, Brace, Chapter 9, p. 123,
      [...] he was again tasting the sickly welter of melted ice cream on his plate.
    • 1929 November, Robert Graves, chapter XII, in Good-bye to All That: An Autobiography, London: Jonathan Cape […], OCLC 5076208 ↗, page 132 ↗:
      After a meal of bread, bacon, rum and bitter stewed tea sickly with sugar, we went up through the broken trees to the east of the village and up a long trench to battalion headquarters.
    • 1950, Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast, New York: Ballantine, 1968, Chapter 80, p. 562,
      The honey tasted sickly in his mouth.
  10. (obsolete) Marked by the occurrence of illness or disease (of a period of time).
    • circa 1600 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 3,
      This physic#Noun|physic but prolongs thy sickly days.
    • ante 1768 Laurence Sterne, undated letter in Original Letters, London: Logographic Press, 1788, pp. 110-111,
      [...] 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, An Essay on the Principle of Population, London: J. Johnson, Chapter 7, p. 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
    • 1782, William Cowper, “The Progress of Error” in Poems, London: J. Johnson, p. 54,
      Has some sickly eastern waste
      Sent us a wind to parch us at a blast?
    • 1867, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (translator), The Divine Comedy: Inferno, London: Routledge, Canto 20, lines 79-81, p. 64,
      Not far it [the water] runs before it finds a plain
      In which it spreads itself, and makes it marshy,
      And oft ’tis wont in summer to be sickly.
Translations Translations Translations Translations Verb

sickly (sicklies, present participle sicklying; past and past participle sicklied)

  1. (transitive, archaic, literary) To make (something) sickly.
    • circa 1600 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1,
      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 (satirist), An Epistle to William Hogarth, London: for the author, p. 12,
      Thy Drudge contrives, and in our full career
      Sicklies our hopes with the pale hue of Fear;
    • 1840, S. M. Heaton, Thoughts on the Litany, by a naval officer’s orphan daughter, edited by George Heaton, 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, Country Living and Country Thinking, Boston: Ticknor and Fields, “Men and Women,” p. 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, World Philosophies, New York: Routledge, Chapter 9, p. 207,
      William of 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 (minister), An Expositor’s Notebook, London: Richard D. Dickinson, 7th edition, Chapter 26, p. 364,
      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.


  1. In a sick manner; in a way that reflects or causes sickness.
    sickly pale; to cough sickly
    • 1818, John Keats, Endymion (poem), 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 (novel), New York: Viking, 1962, Chapter , p. 364,
      The dazed man stared sickly at Casy.
    • 1961, Bernard Malamud, A New Life (novel), Penguin, 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, The End of Sleep New York: Norton, Chapter 9, p. 66,
      The creaseless horizontal face of the giant smiled sickly, leering.

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