Mind your language

Critical thinking: the difference between ‘critique’ and ‘criticise’

26 June 2021

9:00 AM

26 June 2021

9:00 AM

Six years ago I wrote here about critique, as a noun or verb, and things have gone from bad to worse, as expected. I didn’t like it then, and even my husband was repelled. I had thought that people were trying to avoid the negative connotation of criticise. But both words are now used in precisely the same way.

Sportswriters often reveal the real way in which words are used. The other day Mary Waltz wrote: ‘This is not a critique. But the Finland goal was a save Schmeichel makes in his sleep.’ She probably meant the same as ‘This is not a criticism’ — i.e. not a negative criticism.

In America, congresswoman Ilhan Omar said recently: ‘The United States and Israel are imperfect and, like all democracies, at times deserving of critique.’ But, as all democracies deserve analytical criticism, or critique, all the time, the suggestion here is of a negative verdict.

Once upon a time, the art of criticism had the name critickin English, often in the plural criticks (just as the study of what was called natural philosophy took the name physics, following Aristotle). In The Dunciad, his satire on dullness, Pope wrote: ‘Not that my pen to criticks was confin’d.’ He meant the subject, not the people. That was in 1728. A new edition in 1729 changed it to: ‘Not that my quill to Critiques was confin’d.’ (The verse demands a stress on the first syllable of Critiques.)

By an irony, critick or critickswas obsolete in English by 1781 when Kant published his Critik der reinen Vernunft. (Modern German spells Critikas Kritik.) It was translated into Latin, but not into English until 1838, under the title Critick of Pure Reason. That must have been the last gasp for critick, and now we call it Critique of Pure Reason, hardly stopping to wonder why.

It seems to me, six years on, that the main motive now for using critique instead of criticise or criticism is to acquire an academic aura. It makes casual remarks sound like that cynosure of critical race theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s paper from 1989: Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.

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