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Mind your language

I was wrong to criticise using ‘critique’ as a verb

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to start doing it myself

3 October 2015

8:00 AM

3 October 2015

8:00 AM

I lost my husband on the way from Malabar. He is easily lost. We had been talking about the verb critique, which we neither much care for. But, in gathering ammunition, I’d come across this charming sentence from a book of voyages translated in 1598 by William Phillip. He referred to a ‘fruite which the Malabares and Portingales call Carambolas’.

Carambola, the fruit, might have given the Portuguese and Spanish the word carambola meaning ‘a cannon’ in billiards, cannon coming from carom, a reduction of the French version of the word, carambole. But there is a little place near Seville called El Carambolo. A club with the grand name of La Real Sociedad de Tiro de Pichón (the Royal Society of Pigeon Shooting — live or clay) was extending its premises there in 1958 when a glorious treasure of gold was uncovered: bracelets and pectorals and seals. These were taken by some to be the work of the Tartessian culture, centred on the lost city of Tartessos. This had long before been identified by some with Tarshish or Tharsis, mentioned in the Bible, which others said was Tarsus.


‘Concerning the word Tharsish, so much criticiz’d,’ wrote Sir Thomas Herbert the traveller, in 1665, ‘it is Verbum ambiguum and admits a various sence.’ So there it is, the word criticise, meaning ‘discuss critically’. People today want to convey this sort of meaning with the verb critique, hoping to avoid the negative connotations of criticise. Yet by doing so, as with Gresham’s law ‘bad money drives out good’, they make it even less possible to use criticise without a negative connotation.

But, now I look into it, I cannot complain. Criticise had negative connotations centuries ago. Samuel Johnson wrote to Mrs Thrale in 1779 about ‘the gout that was in my ankles when Queeney criticised my gait’ — and Queeney wasn’t giving his gait a good review. Two decades before, in that satirical novel starring a dog, The History of Pompey the Little, critique had already been used as a verb: ‘The worst ribaldry of Aristophanes shall be critiqued and commented on by men who turn up their noses at Gulliver.’ So let the world critique me, but don’t criticise me for abstaining.


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