The word ‘critic’ originally denoted a judge, whose job was to draw the (often fine) distinction between a good or bad action, a defendant’s guilt or innocence, or the positive or negative outcome of a disease. Life is full of such ‘crisis’ points; the outcome either way could, after all, turn out to be ‘critical’. The essential point was that the critic was impartial, and the decision could go either way.
But by the time this Greek word entered the English language (like so many other words, it first appeared in the works of Shakespeare, in 1598), ‘critic’ had already taken on the negative connotation it has today. Appropriately enough, the critics who attracted the greatest opprobrium were those in the theatre, whose reviews could make or break a reputation, but more frequently the latter.
Amid all this negativity, a new expression was needed. Only a hundred years later, the French ‘critique’ became popular in England to refer not to the critic but to the work of the critic – be it an essay, a review, or a printed article. By 1751, ‘critique’ was being used as a verb, but one which was blissfully free of the reputation of ‘criticize’.
So now a person could write a critique, which might or might not be critical in a negative sense. Equally, one could ‘critique’ a performance, or a piece of writing, again without necessarily condemning it to the limbo of one-star reviews.
But language is a living thing. Words, and their meanings, are constantly shifting under the pressure of popular usage. Roll on to 2021, and we have a problem.
Partly as a result of the popularity of TV talent shows presided over by experts from the music industry, ‘critique’ itself has now been infected with the same sense of disparagement as ‘criticize’. So we have ended up with two verbs, ‘criticize‘ and ‘critique’, used pretty much interchangeably, and both of them negative in tone. “I don’t mean to critique you,” says the 21st-century critic, “but that was terrible.” Actually, critiquing is their job – but that’s not what they mean.
In the story of language, it’s quite normal for speakers to adopt new expressions when a word has become so ambiguous that it requires some special distinction to be made. And it’s true that over time, such distinctions can in turn be eroded. Perhaps ‘critique’ is too close to ‘critic’ to imply something different or opposite. In which case we need to start all over again. Which word would you recommend as the new ‘critique’?