Everything's curated now

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Cartoon by K. L. Ricks:

From Lou Stoppard, "Everyone’s a Curator Now:  When everything is 'curated,' what does the word even mean?", NYT 

Recently Maryellen Stewart, a freelance copywriter for luxury brands, was window-shopping in SoHo when she noticed a large sign in a restaurant window advertising a “curated” menu.

“I hate the word,” she said. “It’s everywhere.”

…“It’s mainstream jargon now,” Ms. Stewart said. “It’s used because it sounds fashionable. It sounds like it’s for … the aesthetically conscious.” As zeitgeisty as other oddly specific and much hashtagged words like “wanderlust” or “journey” or “empower,” “curate” is spreading. The word’s overuse has left it almost devoid of meaning, and curators themselves — the traditional, museum-dwelling kind — are up in arms.

What's the derivation of "curate"?  According to Stoppard,

The word “curate” comes from the Latin “curatus,” the past participle of “curare,” which means “to take care of.” For years, in museums and archives, curators did just that: polishing finishes, inspecting canvases, layering archival tissue. The idea of curators as creative agents in their own right, and master of the kind of the sociopolitical commentary that underpins many of today’s exhibitions, is relatively new.

Its sister word is “content.” The spread of both is, in part, an issue of linguistics. How does one summarize the relatively new act of creating, collecting and displaying a bunch of digital “stuff,” whether e-commerce pictures or Tumblr posts? One doesn’t pour olive oil on a salad; one drizzles it. One doesn’t arrange an Instagram feed; one curates it.

"Curating" whatever would seem to have precious little to do with "curing" (C14: from Old French curer, from Latin cūrāre to attend to, heal, from cūra care) bacon, to which I playfully alluded in the previous post on this subject.  Yet it's possible that somebody out there is actually claiming to "curate" the very best, most exotic varieties of bacon.  Anyway, "curate (n.)" and "curate (v.)" are related:

curate (n.)
late 14c., "spiritual guide, ecclesiastic responsible for the spiritual welfare of those in his charge; parish priest," from Medieval Latin curatus "one responsible for the care (of souls)," from Latin curatus, past participle of curare "to take care of" (see cure (v.)). Church of England sense of "paid deputy priest of a parish" first recorded 1550s.

cure (v.)
late 14c., "to restore to health or a sound state," from Old French curer and directly from Latin curare "take care of," hence, in medical language, "treat medically, cure" (see cure (n.1)). In reference to fish, pork, etc., "prepare for preservation by drying, salting, etc.," attested by 1743.

So long as the curate and the curator care well for the individuals and objects that have been entrusted to them, they are worthy practitioners of their respective callings.

[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer]


  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 10:19 am

    As Jesse Sheidlower pointed out on Twitter, there's some Recency Illusion going on here…

  2. MattF said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 10:26 am

    Advertising is ‘curated’, just for me— rather than ‘targeted’. Much less objectionable.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 10:38 am

    From Marriott Bonvoy "News & Program Information":

    Earn and Redeem at Thousands of Curated Vacation Homes

  4. KevinM said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 10:49 am

    I'd much rather go to a vacation home that's A-rated.

  5. D-AW said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 11:24 am

    There is a curious Angie Estes poem that manages to metaphorize human souls as hams via this etymological constellation. It's called "Curio".

  6. Trogluddite said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 11:57 am

    I had to laugh – I used the word myself in a forum post elsewhere only a few minutes before seeing this thread. I was referring to the bookmarks in my web browser, and how I had allowed them to become a badly categorised, poorly labelled, interminable list of links, half of which are of no relevance to me any more or no longer lead anywhere.

    I shall leave it to the rest of you to decide whether poor "curation" was an appropriate choice of words to describe this – or to judge whether I was being pretentious, or simply too lazy to type the extra few characters of "organisation".

  7. Chips Mackinolty said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 1:31 pm

    Perhaps we should administer curare to curation

  8. CD said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 2:10 pm

    There's a useful meaning to be kept, but yes, it has become like artisanal and iconic, way over-used.

    At some point (now that all the world's other problems have been solved) we should have an inquest into the way Google Maps describes restaurants.

  9. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 3:46 pm

    Is this a sign that we're moving out of the everybody-says-"curated" phase and into the everybody-hates-"curated" phase?

  10. Viseguy said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 5:52 pm

    It's only a matter of time before decluttering (f/k/a throwing stuff out) becomes deaccessioning.

  11. Chas Belov said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 7:35 pm

    I use "curated translation" as opposed to "machine translation."

  12. Peter Taylor said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 8:47 pm

    Ante-dating Ben Zimmer's reference slightly, in 2006-07 I worked in a computer game company where a number of internal rôles were "X Curator". I personally, among my other responsibilities, was the "curator" of the lexicon used by the word games. Perhaps the most fun title (not necessarily rôle) in the company was "Combat Curator".

  13. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 9:07 pm

    Can you curate a football team?

  14. rosie said,

    March 7, 2020 @ 12:08 am

    It shows a rather narrow-minded historical focus, I think, to think that a citation from 2009 shows the Recency Illusion.

    Stoppard's use of "drizzle" fails for me: it's useful to know that, because the liquid is so runny and the quantity needed is so small, you need to take care in pouring it so that not too much comes out.

    I think "curate" is useful in indicating selection as well as organising. I organise my digital music collection, which is large. My personal audio player's capacity is much smaller, so it has a curated selection.

  15. Tim Morris said,

    March 7, 2020 @ 7:05 am

    Needs an antonym. If something's just slapped together, it could be "sinecurated."

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    March 7, 2020 @ 8:11 am

    Well, the opposite of "quorate" is "inquorate", so perhaps "incurated" ?!

  17. Anthony said,

    March 7, 2020 @ 9:46 am

    Do curates curate churches?

  18. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 8, 2020 @ 2:24 am

    I agree that it's overdone and I cringe at some of the contexts in which it's used, but curating to me means to make a very careful selection of items.

    In my experience working with museums in one way or another, going back nearly 60 years, a museum curator does much more than take care of objects. The curator decides what objects are to be displayed and in what context. Every museum I know of has more objects tucked away somewhere than can be possibly displayed and a curator from time to time selects some of those objects to be taken out of storage and put on display in a special exhibit of some sort, often selecting other similar objects from sources outside the museum to augment the exhibit.

  19. James Wimberley said,

    March 8, 2020 @ 11:45 am

    Obligatory reference to the Curate's Egg. Works for curators too.

  20. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 8, 2020 @ 5:25 pm

    When I heard the word "curated" on a radio discussion whose beginning I missed, I thought that the reference was to a new movie rating, Q, referring to "queer" content.

  21. Richard Hershberger said,

    March 9, 2020 @ 4:59 am

    @James Wimberley: I am waiting for the appearance of a breakfast restaurant named The Curate's Egg. I'm not saying I would eat there, of course.

  22. Richard Hershberger said,

    March 9, 2020 @ 5:04 am

    Regarding the complaints about the extended uses of "curate," meh. Is the suggestion that all extended uses of words are bad, or that while some are good, but this one is bad? The complaints I see are nothing like this coherent. Or, if the complaint is that this is a vogue word, then wait a while and it will recede in popularity. Remember "metrosexual"? Me neither.

    Putting these together, "curate" mostly likely permanently extended its meaning outside of the museum context, but will soon enough be less trendy than it is at the moment. Where exactly it will settle in–how it will be used and how often–is unpredictable, but a generation from now people will read these complaints with bemusement.

  23. Francisco said,

    March 9, 2020 @ 8:02 am

    @Tim Morris, I'm pretty sure an antonym already exists in English, 'uncurated'. It is perhaps too neutral, merely an absence of curation. In my native Portuguese 'descurado' suggests almost willful negligence, a culpable carelessness.

  24. chris said,

    March 9, 2020 @ 9:37 pm

    @Richard Hershberger: I'm sure some of their menu items would be excellent!

  25. Francois Lang said,

    March 10, 2020 @ 9:33 am

    The Google returns 431 hits for "Curated salad bar". Maybe fewer if the salad bar in question is accompanied by the Curate's egg.

  26. Lugubert said,

    March 11, 2020 @ 4:38 am

    Not quite that complicated in Swedish. "Kurera" still exclusively means 'cure'. But "kurator" ('curator') is a protected title within healthcare. It refers to licensed psycho-social workers employed in healthcare or schools. Museum or exhibition curators have emerged fairly recently ("museumkurator", "utställningskurator").

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    March 11, 2020 @ 12:21 pm

    I am sorry to report that Google Translate is seemingly unaware of that Swedish subtlety, although it is aware of the existence of utställningskurator and museumkurator.

  28. Philip Taylor said,

    March 11, 2020 @ 4:16 pm

    "Curating one's self", from this evening's Radio 4 programme Front Row :

    "What did you observe about technology's rôle in intimacy and loneliness ?"
    "Um, well I think that it's, uh, technology provides us with an absolutely brilliant mask, doesn't it, because we can completely curate a different version of ourselves".

  29. Moa said,

    March 11, 2020 @ 4:44 pm

    In Swedish, the museum curator is sometimes written with c, curator, to distinguish it from the healthcare meaning. There is also the older word "intendent", of course, which you don't see very often nowadays.

    I also associate a museum curator primarily with planning an exhibition or "designing" it, to use another over-used buzzword.

  30. Chas Belov said,

    March 14, 2020 @ 12:31 pm

    Apparently, there is a red panda curator at Zoo Knoxville, who narrates Red panda kindergarten is in session at Zoo Knoxville

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