I was going through this Wikipedia page and came across the following section:

Isaac Newton remarked in a letter to his rival Robert Hooke dated 5 February 1676 [O.S.][9] (15 February 1676 [N.S.]) that:

What Des-Cartes [sic] did was a good step. You have added many several ways, & especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders [sic] of Giants.

The [sic] in the last sentence confused me, what is the error in Newton's quote? I'm guessing Newton intended that giants have two shoulders, and that he was presumably standing with one foot on each shoulder, so it makes sense to use the plural "shoulders". I am not sure why "Giant" is capitalized, but I don't think that is the error due to the placement of the [sic].

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    He spelled Descartes' name wrong. It's a joke, I suspect. Whatever is right before a [sic] in a text is the thing that caused it. Jul 8 '20 at 16:55
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    It is unclear to me whether the "[sic]" is injected in the Wikipedia article, the article the Wikipedia article is quoting, or by Newton himself. Jul 8 '20 at 17:16
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    @YosefBaskin - It’s the second sic that’s curious.
    – Jim
    Jul 8 '20 at 21:15

It's an error. Someone revised the page in April 2020 from "standing on the sholders" (Newton's spelling) to "standing on the shoulders", but they left the sic in.

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    Excellent. In theory, that's plagiarism. The original-text error should not have been corrected. Jul 8 '20 at 22:16
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    @JasonBassford: Don't you mean vandalism rather than plagiarism? Jul 9 '20 at 1:34
  • @TinfoilHat No. The result of the inappropriate edit is that the Wikipedia article is now plagiarizing Newton. Jul 9 '20 at 2:22
  • @JasonBassford Plagiarism is quoting without attribution. Attributing a misquote is not plagiarising the author who was misquoted.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 9 '20 at 6:52
  • @AndrewLeach It's still a form of plagiarism, although not its main sense. You are attributing something to them that they didn't say. Jul 9 '20 at 7:08

The first [sic] is modern. Rendering his name as "Des Cartes" or "Des-Cartes" was common at the time.

The life of Monsieur Des Cartes containing the history of his philosophy and works : as also the most remarkable things that befell him during the whole course of his life / translated from the French by S.R. (1693).

The fact that an alternate title of this work is Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes suggests that the 'Descartes' convention was not yet established, in fact you can buy Les Meditations Metaphysiques De Rene Des Cartes on Amazon.fr

Here is the title page of his own (Latin) work of 1641, where his surname is rendered as "DES-CARTES"

enter image description here

And the French 1647 translation likewise:

Meditations Metaphysiques complete with hyphen:

enter image description here


As noted by @jessica in another answer, the quote on the Wikipedia page was edited to change sholders to shoulders (and much was changed to many). Both of those edits were incorrect; what was there before can be seen in Newton's original letter. The original page quote has since been restored.

The real question is whether [sic], which denotes an error, should appear after sholders. Sholder is a Middle English spelling that still had a little traction in Middle Modern English (1660–1789), the period in which Newton wrote his 1676 letter. The OED (login required) cites this example from 1683:

1683 J. MOXON Mech. Exercises II. 187 A short piece of a Knife broken off about two Inches from the Sholder.*

If sholder was still an acceptable spelling in Newton's time, and if Newton was using it intentionally, then sholders was not an error, and [sic] should not be applied. (Some other form of notation about archaic spelling and usage should be deployed if an explanation is deemed necessary for the audience.)


* Note the capitalization of the nouns there—like Newton's Giants.


PS: The same goes for Des-Cartes (see @michaelharvey's answer).

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    I think that I would properly write "sic" after a quotation that will appear to the reader like my error. I mean to say that the language appears sic=thus in the source that I am quoting, and that I am not introducing this peculiarity. I don't see why it must reflect any judgment about whether the person that I quote was himself making any mistake.
    – Chaim
    Jul 9 '20 at 19:18
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    @Chaim: It is a matter of style, yes, but many (most?) stylists agree that [sic] is not for denoting archaisms: "Sic may show that an uncommon or archaic expression is reported faithfully, such as when quoting the U.S. Constitution: 'The House of Representatives shall chuse [sic] their Speaker...' However, several writing guidebooks discourage its use..." More discussion here and here. Jul 9 '20 at 20:16

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