Curate for What Ails Ya

It’s only September but I’ve already got my nomination for Word of the Year: curate. This transitive verb is a back formation from the venerable noun curator, and is first cited by the Oxford English Dictionary in a 1934 use. From that point till fairly recently, it has been exclusively (or nearly so) used to refer to organizing a museum or art exhibit. However, as Bob Dylan once sang, things have changed. I just searched for curated on The New York Times’ Web site, and only two of the most recent 10 hits (all published in the last month, by the way) have the traditional meaning. The others include.

  • “Ms. Morris may not know it, but she is Fresh & Easy’s model customer: someone who appreciates the well-curated selection of a specialty grocer but with the discount prices of a mainstream supermarket.”
  • “Start your day with our curated set of grooming products.” (This was the opening sentence of an article recommending such men’s personal-care items as “the Art of Shaving Ocean Kelp Pre-Shave Gel.”)
  • “Since the early 2000s, an artist, Justin Gignac, has been selling actual garbage curated from the city’s streets, wrapped in sealed, smell-proof plastic cubes.”
  • “Today’s students will enter a world of adulthood in which information does not come curated by editors in large, downtown buildings.”
  • “In recent months, plenty of perfectly healthy businesses across the country have expired—sometimes for hours, other times for weeks—though only in the online realm cataloged and curated by Google.”

One finds this plenty of examples of this use of curate in academe. In an article in the Digital Campus issue in May, David Silver describes an assignment for his media-studies production class where “students had to cook, bake, or prepare something suitable for breakfast or lunch. Second, they had to document the cooking process with digital photos, upload them to Flickr … and curate them into a set that tells a meaningful story about their dish.”

The final two examples hint at why curate isn’t just a vogue word (though it is that) but, in addition, an essential one for our time, aka, the Information Age. As the penultimate quote from the Times suggests, knowledge and data generally used to come parceled out to us by editors and other gatekeepers. They decided what was important and worthwhile, and the forms in which it would be presented.

The Web doesn’t work that way. It has developed in a such a way that raw data are sorted and organized not by human hands but by algorithms (number of page views, number of thumbs-up, Google’s secret sauce, Wikipedia’s universal access and veto power) that are certainly democratic and often useful, but just as often bring in too much noise and too much funk.

Curating the word and curating the phenomenon suggest a welcome recognition that some situations demand expert taste and judgment. I expect major recognition come January.

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