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Crucial vs. Critical

There are several pairs of synonymous words in the English language that I’ve occasionally found myself pondering, using them as starting points for study and conversation. Among these pairs would be “crucial” and “critical”. What exactly is the difference between these two? In past conversations, I’ve argued that if the two words were compared to each other on a level degree, then crucial would mean important, and critical would mean more important. That is, it’s crucial that I find a Band-Aid for the cut on my finger, but it’s critical that you call an ambulance because my skull is cracked open.

Luke fired up the the Apple Dashboard dictionary this weekend to see what it had to say about these two words. According to it, via Luke:

Crucial implies that an outcome is dependent upon it, e.g., the battle was crucial to their victory. Critical refers more to a crisis, and the outcomes have more of a negative-positive connotation.

So perhaps the two words should not be compared to each other by level of degree, but by context. Luke’s study on the origins of the words:

Crucial: from Latin crux, meaning cross.
Critic: From Latin criticus, which is from Greek kritikos, meaning judge.
Crisis: From Greek krisis, meaning decision, obviously related to kritikos.

Luke offers:

Clearly, they share the same roots in the sense of decision. The question, then, why did they both evolve into these two slightly different connotations? To throw it out there: the crucial is a function of the cross, how it can go both ways. But the critical is dependent on the value judgment, the kritikos.

Yeah. I can see that. While the two words are practically interchangeable in everyday conversation, I suppose crucial is most appropriate when talking about something that pivots on a circumstance (visualize the point of intersection on a cross), with the outcome of the circumstance going either way (usually positive or negative). i.e. Speeding up is crucial to whether or not I’ll beat the red light. Critical is probably the better word when directly referring to the observably negative outcome of the crucial situation. i.e. It is critical that I beat that red light, otherwise I won’t get to the airport on time and I’ll miss my flight.

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