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On our high speed trains paper bags are provided to collect garbage. The following is printed on the bags:

This may be used for waste or sickness

According to the Chinese words on the bags, 'sickness' means 'vomitus' here, but I've never seen usage like this and I cannot find that meaning in my dict.

Is this true?

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Short answer: Yes 'sickness' here is being used to mean 'vomit' (I see 'vomitus' is in the dictionary, but I have never heard anyone say it other than perhaps a doctor).

Long answer: Technically, 'sickness' does not mean 'vomit', according to the dictionary. It means:

a) A particular illness or malady.

b) The state of being ill.

c) Nausea, queasiness.

None of these definitions include the actual act or product of vomiting.

However, the tendency of English speakers to use words which avoid directly describing an unpleasant act or entity when in formal contexts (euphemisms and circumlocution) is being used here to avoid directly saying the noun 'vomit' or 'sick'.

While these sorts of paper bags are universally called 'sick bags' in normal English, it's exactly the sort of thing which often won't get written on them.

I just did a quick Google, and the most common sentences used on the aeroplane bags are "for motion sickness" and "waste bag", both of which avoid saying directly what everybody knows the bags are for.

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    +1, although I would be much more likely to call them barf bags than anything else. – Adam Mar 4 at 3:38
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    In UK English, sick is definitely used to mean vomit specifically. If you look at the Oxford Dictionary definition, under NOUN [mass noun] you'll see "British informal, Vomit, 'she was busy wiping sick from the carpet'. – Jason Bassford Mar 4 at 4:23
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    Other than the UK English definition of "sick" meaning "vomit", there's also the colloquial "I'm going to be sick" which means "I'm going to vomit" in both UK and US English. There is a correlation between "sick(ness)" and vomit in US English, though it may not have made it into the dictionary yet. – Flater Mar 4 at 8:43
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    "According to the dictionary" -- which one? There are many. – David Richerby Mar 4 at 10:19
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    I don't think I've ever seen the phrase "sanitary bag" in the UK. If I did see it, I'd imagine it was for disposing of feminine hygiene products. The only place I see sick bags is on planes and, there, they usually seem to be called something like "air sickness bags". – David Richerby Mar 4 at 10:21
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Yes, and my cleaner at university refused to clean up "sickness" from the bathroom.

(Not mine, I hasten to add.)

So the word has been used as such in (British) English.

  • Not your "sickness" or not your bathroom? ;) – David Richerby Mar 4 at 10:19
  • Neither (or both) ;) – Owain Mar 4 at 20:16

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