Please, don’t critique me!

talentshow

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 2019, 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’?

From basket to casket

Sully the Dog

Sully, President George H.W. Bush’s service dog, waits with his handler at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Dec. 03, 2018. (photo by U.S. Army Pfc. Katelyn Strange)

Verbal ambiguities are frequently the cause of laughter, sometimes at inappropriate moments. During the state funeral of the 41st President of the United States, for instance, many onlookers were touched by the loyalty of George Bush’s dog, who stayed in close proximity to his master to the very end. A reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald was moved to write the following words on the dog’s fidelity:

‘After accompanying the statesman and World War II veteran in the final months of his life, Sully, the late president’s service dog, lay before the casket holding what remained of him.’

The unintentional humour of this sentence reminded me of this other example from my schooldays:

‘Launching the ship with impressive ceremony, the Admiral’s daughter smashed a bottle of champagne over her stern as she slid gracefully down the slipway.’

In both cases, there is what might be called ‘subject-object’ confusion. In the latter example, ‘she’ could refer either to the Admiral’s daughter or to the ship (ships are frequently referred to as feminine objects). In the former, it’s not clear whether the object (the casket) is doing the ‘holding’ or the subject (Sully the dog).

To get an unambiguous sentence, we must therefore separate the subject and object.

In the case of the story of the late president, that is easily done by changing the participle form of the verb (‘holding’) into a relative clause starting with ‘that’ or ‘which’. This allows the object to have its own verb that is clearly not connected to Sully the dog:

‘After accompanying the statesman and World War II veteran in the final months of his life, Sully, the late president’s service dog, lay before the casket that held what remained of him.’

So we can change the wording to avoid embarrassment, but the question is whether we really want to. After all, it’s sometimes important to be able to laugh in the face of grief.