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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s | academese | “select and display”)

Here is a verb that has begun covering a lot of new ground in the last decade. “Curate” once had a sharply limited set of objects. The word was nearly always used in the context of museums, galleries, or libraries, and it meant select, arrange, explain. The curator chooses a subset of the entire collection of the institution(s), usually based on an era, a specific person or group, or a theme. Coming up with the focus isn’t necessarily the curator’s job, but everything after that is. You pick your items, you array them within the exhibition space, you label them, you compose explanatory text, and you stay up nights making it all add up to a coherent, satisfying whole. The term didn’t always go with museums, but when it didn’t, it applied to a film festival or something that required the same kind of vision and similar coordination of diverse material.

Curators have other responsibilities, such as maintaining collections (i.e., choosing what to add and preserving it). But the verb “to curate” has always been used in a narrower way to denote preparing a set of items for display in a way that will inform, educate, and entertain visitors. Up until 2000, and probably for a few years after that (here LexisNexis and my memory agree), the verb was rarely used any other way. By 2010, though, “curate” had gobbled up many new things: content shared on social media, consumer goods, tourist attractions, even tidbits of wisdom derived from hard-won experience. One does the same sort of thing in these vast new fields that one did with paintings, manuscripts, or architectural designs. And one needs a word for it, so this shy wallflower, once the sole property of bespectacled museum employees, has spread its arms wide to conquer new worlds.

The growth of social media certainly seems to have played a role in the spread of “curate.” A site like Pinterest makes every person her own curator, plucking related bits and pieces from near and far off the web and grouping them for others to admire. But the spread of “curate” does not seem to depend entirely on Pinterest and its manifold kin. The proximate cause of this post was an offhand reference to a “carefully curated [music] playlist” in a recent New Yorker article by Michael Pollan. I stumbled over the phrase and asked myself Lex Maniac question number one: How would we have said that forty years ago? I didn’t have to cast around long for an answer: “selected” or possibly “organized.” After another minute’s thought, I settled on “selected” or “chosen” as a perfectly adequate substitute, even in 2015. Aside from alliteration, why had Pollan chosen “curated” in this context? One reason is that the tracks were chosen for a common purpose to have a particular effect. But it’s also true that using the high-toned verb lent the whole enterprise more dignity. It’s not just a bunch of songs someone threw together, it has a coherent goal and requires a solidly respectable term.

Of course, “curate” means more than “select” (or at least it used to), and the term generally seems to retain the original sense of organizing and placing in context even now — whether it will in twenty years is anyone’s guess. The spread of “curate” into so many new areas is most likely caused by the constant striving for class and tone that our obsession with shopping and kitty pictures forces upon us. We would like to think that the daily tsunami of trivia and ephemera — whether in the form of tweets, video files, bizarre news stories, or spam and scam — has merit that may not be obvious to the unimpressed observer. Words like “curate” confer the extra class with very little effort. Unless he is reading carefully, the unimpressed observer may think he’s dealing with something more important than it really is.

Thanks to my sister, who proposed this word months ago. I’m not the quickest little brother in the world, but I did finally get a round tuit.

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