a critical friend

Jean Emile

Senior Member
French France
Hi !

At a joint press conference with Sarkozy in Caen Obama said :

"the United States is a critical friend and ally of France"

In this particular context, does "critical" mean "essential, absolutely necessary" or has it something to do with "a person who offers critiques of another person’s work as a friend, asks provocative questions" and so on ?

Would the meaning of "critical" have changed in another context ? For instance if he had simply said "the US is a critical friend of France" (i. e. omitting "ally") ?

Thank you for your help.

Jean Emile
 
  • Jean Emile

    Senior Member
    French France
    Well, I'm a bit puzzled because I thought the concept of "the critical friend" was quite common : here is a quotation from Wikipedia

    "The Critical Friend is a powerful idea, perhaps because it contains an inherent tension. Friends bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard. Critics are, at first sight at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure. Perhaps the critical friend comes closest to what might be regarded as 'true friendship' - a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique. "

    So I thought Obama had to add "ally" to "friend" in order to avoid the confusion.
    Does it mean that "critical" in the sense of "essential" is much more common than in the sense of "expressing adverse or disapproving comments or judgements" ?

    Jean Emile
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I don't see it as clearly as Dimcl, Jean Emile; indeed having read the context, I'm still not sure what President Obama meant to say.

    I think I'd be more likely to interpret it in the sense of your Wiki quote: "Perhaps the critical friend comes closest to what might be regarded as 'true friendship' - a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique."
     

    Jean Emile

    Senior Member
    French France
    Thank you very much Loob !
    I hadn't managed yet to read the complete text of the press conference. And the context if of course of critical :) importance.
    What's your, linguistic !, feeling on that matter :
    Can, depending on the context, the expression "critical friend" mean either "an essential friend" or "a friend who is able to criticize you" ?
    Does one of the meanings prevail in the common use ?

    Jean Emile
     

    sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    I think you are quite correct in questioning the usage. It can be considered both ways.

    In this case, I would go with Dimcl's response, but I would not generalize.
     

    Jean Emile

    Senior Member
    French France
    Thank you for giving me your feeling,

    quite often you don't really know what to think when you're confronted to such ambiguities, and it's very interesting to get the opinion of different native speakers.
     

    Benton

    Member
    English UK
    Probably an unconscious use of an unfortunate adjective. "Critical" means "essential in a particular circumstance" (I suspect here "in the current political climate"). It also has the pejorative meaning of "one who points out defects in another" (almost certainly not intended here).

    The sentence would have been more diplomatically and clearly expressed as "the US is a friend and ally of France, a country that is critical to the current political climate".
    There is also the unlikely possibility that it was a Freudian slip, ie the real meaning Obama subconsciously wished to express, viz. "the US is critical of French policies".

    I suspect the sentence illustrates the trap sometimes encountered from the desire to substitute elegance for simplicity.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I think Benton makes a good point (actually, several good points;)). For me, "critical" in the sense of "essential" works when something is essential to something else: so, critical success factors = factors critical/essential to success.

    I can't parse President Obama's critical friend as friend critical/essential to something. Which is why I'm reduced, on the balance of probabilities, to "critical friend" meaning "friend who is willing to criticise (and valued for that reason)".

    This was spoken language, where all sorts of infelicities occur. Maybe President Obama meant a completely different adjective....:D
     

    Esca

    Senior Member
    ATX
    USA - English
    I only perceive the "necessary, crucial" meaning in his statement. I think the use of the word "friend" is throwing people off. I've personally never heard of the phrase "critical friend" with the meaning that Jean Emile cited.

    I think Obama simply meant that the U.S. is a critical (important) ally and friend of France.
    As in, the U.S. is a "friend and ally" that is "critical" to France.

    Unfortunately, "critical" has multiple meanings, and the juxtaposition of "critical" with "friend" caused certain associations in people's minds: those of criticism.
    If Obama had said "critical ally and friend," or just "critical ally," I think the meaning of "critical" would have been clearer. In that case I don't think we'd be having this conversation.
     
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