Usage Notes

Can You 'Curate' Anything?

Or can it only be art?

two people standing in art gallery

This one's from M-W's Usage Notes Period.

One of the surest signs that English is in a fine state of health is that the speakers of this language are constantly finding new aspects of its use with which to be annoyed; we don’t spend much energy complaining about the changes and mutations of dead or dying languages. This past decade or so has seen the adoption of a number of new peeves, such as disgust with the use of friend as a verb, opposition to a large number of texting abbreviations (LOL, and widespread opposition to the semantic broadening of curate and curator.

Klaus Biesenbach Thinks the Word 'Curator' Is ‘Overused’
— (headline) New York Observer, 1 Oct. 2012

Stop abusing the word 'curate,' already
— (headline) National Post (Don Mills. Can.), 27 Mar. 2019

Curate is a more recent entry to the list of buzzwords that should be banned. Curate is what people in art galleries do. I regularly hear people use the expression "curate content". What they really mean is choose. People who use the word curate are doing so because they think they sound cool. They don’t.
— Alexandra Cain, The Press (Christchurch, NZ), 11 Feb. 2015

The Origin of 'Curator'

We define curator as “one who has the care and superintendence of something; especially, one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit,” and the verb form of curate as “ to act as curator of.” Those who are offended by the recent developments of these words feel that they should be restricted in use to such topics as people who work in museums, and the careful choosing of works of art; an exhibit of expressionist painters may be curated, but it is gauche to apply this word to one’s collection of ironic t-shirts.

However, as is so often the case in English, words are in the habit of changing their meaning, and the recent shifts in meaning of these two are not the first time each has dabbled in semantic drift. Curator is the older of the two, coming into use in the 14th century. Among the word’s initial meaning was one that applied to Roman law: “a person corresponding nearly to the guardian of English law and appointed to manage the affairs of a person past the age of puberty while he is a minor or of any such person when legally incompetent (as a spendthrift or a lunatic).” Curator also served as a synonym for curate (“a member of the Christian clergy”). The sense dealing with a person in charge of a museum did not come into use until the 17th century.

The Origin of 'Curate'

The verb form of curate is a back-formation, taken from curator, and is considerably more recent, appearing in the second half of the 19th century. Among the earliest verb uses is one which, sad to say, has fallen out of use: “to be plagued with a surfeit of curates” (not a terribly serious definition).

Are we not incumbented and curated until bishops, priests, and deacons are vanishing from our ken?
Liverpool Mercury (Liverpool, Eng.), 27 Aug. 1866

Shortly after this nonce use we see curate begin to be used in the sense of ‘carefully choosing just the right assortment of objects.’

We may not omit mention of the really excellent library, curated by the accomplished Rev. J. C. Carrier, whose heart is in his work, and whose work shows itself in a large and well-selected library and museum.
Chicago Daily Tribune, 24 Jun. 1869

The use of curate to describe such actions as putting together a basic restaurant menu, or a lineup of inspirational speakers, appears to have increased greatly around the beginning of the 21st century. It took approximately a decade before murmurs of apprehension about this began to show in print.

The word curate is overused when it comes to fashion, but Guinness does manage her closet like a gallery of sorts.
— Derek Blasberg, Harper’s Bazaar (New York, NY), Mar. 2011

Given that both the extended use and the complaints about such use are fairly new curate does not appear in many usage guides. Benjamin Dreyer did provide an entry in his delightful 2019 book, Dreyer’s English:

This is what “curate” is not so good for: to portray what you’re doing when you’re organizing a playlist of motivating songs for gym use, selecting smoked fishes for a brunch, or arranging displays of blouses, espadrilles, and picturesque thrift-shop books at Anthropologie.
— Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English, 2019

You may, if you wish, continue to employ curate in whatever manner you see fit, but you should be aware that there is a very good chance that you are inducing teeth-gnashing rage in your audience. So if you’re the sort of person who curates the linguistic anxiety of others, well, this may be the perfect word for you.

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