Inspired by an ongoing debate in the clinical sciences concerning the value of evil as a label for human behavior (Mowrer 1960, Staub 1999, Wellman 2000, Williams 2004 etc.), this thesis examines the semantic role of AGENT in the lexical items sick and evil. Williams makes the argument that the label evil removes responsibility from the doctor, whereas, the label sick empowers the doctor in bringing about a cure. While this view is not universally accepted in the field, it does bring to light an interesting question in applied linguistic semantics as to the assignment of agency with respect to sick and evil. Based on the close association of the meanings of sick and evil that stems from historical, psychological, and legal perspectives, this thesis assumes that the semantic feature [+/-RESPONSIBILITY] is assigned to either sick or evil at some point along a continuum. This continuum establishes EVIL at one pole and receives [+RESPONSIBILITY] while SICK is at the opposite pole and receives [-RESPONSIBILITY]. Using a variety of prompts to survey 106 respondents, the continuum model is shown to be only partially true. There is a correlation between NON-RESPONSIBILITY and SICK. Also, a continuum exists that allows the assignment of PARTIAL RESPONSIBILITY to both terms. However, there is no definitive significant correlation between RESPONSIBILITY and EVIL. Further conclusions include the indication of adherence to a legal model of guilt, innocence, and insanity in the general conceptions of SICK and EVIL. Also, demographic variation shows little predictive potential in how people perceive SICK and EVIL. This thesis concludes with a proposal for an alternative model using a Greimas Square to represent the conceptions of SICK and EVIL that more appropriately fits the trends found in the survey data.



College and Department

Humanities; Linguistics and English Language



Date Submitted


Document Type





Thematic Roles, Semantic Roles, Theta Roles, Agent, Lexicon, Lexical Semantics, Semantic Analysis, Evil, Sick, Psycho-linguistics, Socio-linguistics



Included in

Linguistics Commons