Friday, January 9, 2009


Sometimes a term becomes a buzzword by taking on the meaning of another word with which it is often associated. This may be what happened with ‘critical,’ which seems to be used frequently to suggest a thing is ‘critically important.’

When something (rather than someone) is critical, it is at a decisive or crucial point, possibly one of crisis. For example, on January 5, 2009, Reuters ran the headline, “Russia gas supplies to Bulgaria at critical level.”

In many cases, however, things are said today to be critical that are not. For example, an innovations report calls “risk management critical to corporate strategy.” What it means to suggest is that risk management is critically important; it is not implying a subject only now at a point of crisis. While perhaps timely in some senses, the report is giving general advice, not merely an of-the-moment status update.

The government of Canada (along with other governments around the world) often refers to various assets, from hospitals to power lines, as “critical infrastructure.” What it means by this is infrastructure that is critically important; i.e. essential at times of crisis. It does not mean that such infrastructure is constantly on the brink of collapsing.

Indeed, it is highly ironic to see a term with negative connotations related to crises used to describe the very foundations of modern society. If transportation networks, water pipes and telecommunications lines were literally “critical infrastructure,” no one would feel sufficiently confident to use them at any time!


  1. Pete, I'd like to hear your thoughts on popular usage of "facility." I used to work with an editor who pretty well forbade the word--he said "it could mean anything from a toilet to a skyscraper." It probably is overused, but I find it handy when I'm writing stories about a place like Halifax's Convention Centre. (Believe it or not, it comes up in stories fairly often for me.)

  2. Huh. As I edit trade publications, I often run news items--bullet lists of them, really--under the banner of 'New facilities.' I see it as a catch-all term, though not quite for everything under the sun. While I might list warehouses, offices, training centres, etc., I'm certainly not going to bother reporting on Company X's refurbished restroom.

    Among the definitions for 'facility' in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (or CanOx, as my colleagues and I call it for short) is the following:

    "a building designed for a specific purpose."

    And it notes this is a North American use.

    It separately lists the following as a euphemism for the plural 'facilities':

    "a toilet or washroom."

    So I'd say that editor you worked with was actually confusing two different meanings!