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Mind your language

I was wrong about ‘critique’. You may be too

This is not the recent Americanism I had assumed

8 October 2016

9:00 AM

8 October 2016

9:00 AM

‘Americans,’ said my husband in much the same tone that Betsey Trotwood said ‘Donkeys’. It was his way of explaining my dislike of the verb critique.

I had bridled most recently in reading a rather good review by Professor Sir Paul Collier in the TLS, where he said that ‘leading economists have critiqued the euro’. Some of my annoyance came from a vague apprehension that criticise had recently been replaced by critique partly to avoid the negative connotations of the former, yet here the connotations were as negative as the blackest black hole. At the same time, critique belonged, to my mind, strictly to the world of literary criticism and was unfit for application to currencies. I was wrong in most of what I assumed.


Critique is not a very new verb. ‘The worst ribaldry of Aristophanes shall be critiqued,’ wrote Francis Coventry in 1751, in The History of Pompey the Little, a satirical novel told through the fortunes of a lapdog. (Coventry is so little known now because he published the book anonymously and went and died young a couple of years later.) The word wasn’t really new then. It had been in use for 150 years with the spelling critic or more often critick. Against my assumption, critick/critique from the first had a negative connotation. It is, however, true that its use for an informal oral animadversion does seem to have sprung up in America, no earlier than the 1960s.

As a noun meaning ‘essay in criticism’, Pope used the spelling critick in the 1728 edition of The Dunciad, and critique in the edition of 1729. (That is not my discovery, but was established by the time the Oxford English Dictionary got round to the word in 1893.) Samuel Johnson had used the spelling critick in his Dictionary, but Henry Todd, the clergyman who revised it in an influential cheaper format in 1818, adopted the Frenchified spelling critique. The stress moved from the first to the second syllable. It was about this time that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was translated by Francis Haywood (being published in 1838), or so reference books tell us. If you look at the title page of his translation, it says unashamedly Critick of Pure Reason.


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