This is shaping up to be a nasty flu season, which prompted a listener named Marc to bring up a regionalism I had forgotten about. He said, “My [girlfriend] and I have a bit of a contention…with the bug going on and people getting sick. When they call work, do they call ‘in sick’ or call ‘out sick’?”
Back in 2009, I posed this question to my followers on social media and made a map of their responses.
red=call in sick. yellow=call out sick. green=call off sick. blue=mixed.
I noticed a few interesting things while I was going through the responses to make the map:
- “Calling out sick” seems to be most common in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, although it is heard a bit in other places.
- A very small number of people (about six respondents) said they say they “call off sick,” which I had never heard before. It was too few people to say anything definitive, but they seem to be scattered across a region from Illinois to Pennsylvania that linguists sometimes call the Inland Northern region.
- Among the initial responses, a few people said they had worked at different companies in the same city, and at one company everyone said they call in sick, and at another company everyone said they call out sick, which led me to suspect that corporate culture or traditions play a role along with regional differences. And follow-up posts on the original map convinced me even more that corporate culture plays a role. I’m not sure whether regionalisms are behind the corporate culture aspect though. For example, it could be that the human resources departments for the companies that foster a “call out sick” culture are located in the regions where that wording is more common. I just can’t tell.
Marc said his girlfriend did, indeed, live on the East Coast for a few years, and he asked me to say that “call in sick” is the right way to say it. Sorry, Marc. I can’t do that. It’s like saying you stand on line instead of saying you stand in line. These are idioms, and they sound weird to those of us who don’t live near New York, but they aren’t wrong. Some idioms are just different in some parts of the country.
This is an interesting one, and I’d love to hear what you think, especially about the role of corporate culture. Do you think it’s just a result of companies having regional bases or do you think it’s something else?
[Editor’s Note: Australian readers say in their country, they “take a sickie” or if they are only pretending to be sick to get a day off, they may say they are “chucking a sickie.”]
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”