The Grammarphobia Blog

Shall we curate a garage sale?

Q: I’m sick of hearing the verb “curate” used loosely, as in “I’m going to curate my next garage sale … closet cleanout … laundry sorting.” AAUGH! (Forgive me, Charlie Brown.) Please do what you can to set these “curators” straight.

A: Let’s start with the noun “curate,” a word that entered English in the mid-14th century with the meaning of a clergyman.

Later, in the 16th century, the term came to mean an assistant to a parish priest in the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.

The noun “curate” comes from the medieval Latin word curatus, an adjective meaning “of, belonging to, or having a cure or charge,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

(Here “cure,” from the Latin cura, or care, means “the spiritual charge or oversight of parishioners or lay people,”  the OED says.)

Shortly after “curate” entered English, so did another noun, “curator.” This word came from the Latin curator or curatorem (meaning overseer, guardian, or agent).

When “curator” first appeared in English, in 1362, it meant a curate. But by the early 1400s it was used in a more secular way, to mean a legal guardian.

In the 17th century, it acquired a few more meanings: a manager or steward, an officer of a university, or a person in charge of a museum, art gallery, library, or the like.

This last meaning gave rise to the verb “curate,” which the OED describes as a back-formation of “curator.”

We’ve written before about back-formations, which are new words formed by dropping prefixes or suffixes from older ones.

Other examples of back-formations include “diagnose” (from “diagnosis”), “escalate” (from “escalator”), “enthuse” (from “enthusiasm”), and “surreal” (from “surrealism” and “surrealist”).

But back to the verb “curate,” which is defined in the OED this way: “to act as curator of (a museum, exhibits, etc.); to look after and preserve.”

The OED’s first printed citation is from the 1934 Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed.), but no doubt earlier examples will come to light.

We say this because the gerund “curating” was known much earlier. Here’s a quotation by the naturalist W. E. Hoyle that appeared in 1906 in The Museums Journal:

“I think it will be generally admitted that the business (or may I say ‘profession’) of museum ‘curating’ is one which demands … a special technical training.”

“Curating” is defined in the OED as “the supervision of a museum, gallery, or the like by a curator; the work of storing and preserving exhibits.”

Lately, however, the verb “curate” has been bandied about pretty freely (not to mention pretentiously), and has come loose from its museum moorings.

As Alex Williams wrote in the New York Times in an Oct. 4, 2009, article,  stores now “curate” their merchandise, nightclubs “curate” an evening’s entertainment, and websites “curate” their content.

“Curate,” Williams wrote, “has become a fashionable code word among the aesthetically minded, who seem to paste it onto any activity that involves culling and selecting.”

Back in more “print-centric” days, the reporter added, “the term of art was ‘edit’—as in a boutique edits its dress collections carefully.”

How long will this new use of “curate” last?  We suspect it will go away once it’s no longer on the cutting edge.

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