The following quotation is from “A study in scarlet” by Arthur Conan Doyle:

That book made me positively ill.

I know the meaning of both positively and ill, but when consolidating (combining) them I can’t figure out the meaning of the expression positively ill. I can’t even realize how can be associated two opposite (in meaning) words, but I guess is one of the particularities that English can offer.

  • 1
    Simply put- "not just ill, but very ill" Aug 6, 2014 at 12:32
  • 1
    positively: "(mainly spoken) used for emphasizing that something is true, especially something surprising or unexpected" -- His voice changed and became positively angry. The shock of the cold water made him gasp, but when he came out he was positively glowing. Aug 7, 2014 at 0:39
  • @Damkerng, thank you for your useful link. Thanks to @Snailplane’s answer, now, I can understand #1. Before, surely, I couldn’t. Aug 7, 2014 at 6:21
  • Necrophos in Dota2 comes into mind: "I feel ill, in a good way..." Aug 11, 2014 at 18:31

4 Answers 4


There's no contradiction. In this sentence, positively doesn't have its literal meaning of "in a positive manner". Instead, it's used as an intensifier, emphasizing the following adjective ill.

When an English word is used as an intensifier, it loses its literal meaning. Originally, very meant "truly" (like verity, verify, verily, and so on), but now we can say very tasty ("tasty to a great degree"). Likewise, really meant "in reality", but now we can say really sick ("sick to a great degree").

A lot of similar words belong to this class, including awfully, absolutely, terribly, or the slang words super, way, totally, and literally.

  • thank you, even though I was familiar with the word intensifier, I didn’t know all its possibilities. +1. Aug 7, 2014 at 6:21
  • This is an awfully good explanation...
    – J.R.
    Feb 1, 2016 at 9:21

"Positively" in this case serves as an intensifier. "Positive" has a root in the verb "posit", which means "to put forward as fact or as a basis for argument". Outside of mathematical contexts, "positive" is understood to mean that something is acceptable as truth (pending counter-proof).

As such, a medical test can be "positive" in that it presents evidence to believe that the person is sick, pending the results of other tests to corroborate or counter the statement.

In this case however, "positively ill" can mean that the speaker felt ill in some way, and while actual medical tests may prove him to be wrong, he feels that the things he felt were discomforting enough to warrant it being "illness".


"Positive" can also be used in the sense of "positive evidence" versus "negative evidence". "Negative evidence" is the result of tests that rule other things out. "Positive evidence" is actual evidence of something.

So "positively ill" can mean "obviously ill", as opposed to "not feeling great", "not feeling bored", "not merely feeling miserable", et cetera.

Some possible "positive evidence" of being ill might be:

  • nausea (wanting to throw up, wanting to vomit)
  • asthma attack (trouble breathing, wheezing)
  • itchy eyes
  • ear ache
  • head ache
  • a pain in the gut

So "That book made me positively ill" might mean "That book (literally) gave me a headache", or "That book made me want to puke".


It means "very, very ill". This is an example of an oxymoron, two words with opposite meanings or implications, used to exaggerate the meaning of the noun.

See this article on examples of oxymorons.

  • Downvoter - why?
    – TarkaDaal
    Aug 7, 2014 at 14:12
  • I'm just hazarding a guess, but it may be because you've mixed apples and oranges. Technically, I suppose we could consider positively ill to be an oxymoron, but these sort of incidental oxymorons are not necessarily literary devices "used to exaggerate the meaning of nouns" – at least not across the board. To wit, many of the oxymorons listed in the linked article don't exaggerate anything (such as negative growth, original copy, random order, crash landing, and unbiased opinion); they're simply curious coincidental word pairings.
    – J.R.
    Feb 1, 2016 at 9:36

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