language

Can you stretch a word so far that It breaks?

Sandra Stewart | April 24, 2013

I think it is possible to stretch the meaning of a word so far that, like a suitcase overstuffed with dirty laundry and souvenirs, it bursts, creating an impossible mess and possibly breaking things.

Case in point: curate/curator. Back in the day—I don’t know, a year or two ago—a curator was someone who organized exhibitions, particularly at museums and galleries. Now anyone who organizes anything is a curator. The New Yorker recently ran a cartoon showing a man and a woman standing at a bar, drinks in hand. He’s saying, “I curate children’s parties.” That’s barely a joke. I’ve recently been to conferences that were curated, read a web news site run by a curator, and heard glowing references to people who curate experiences.

What of it? Well, it’s confusing. What can it mean to curate an experience? (And do I want that? How is that different from curating an art exhibition?) The application of curate to so many jobs and activities makes the word increasingly less descriptive, and therefore less useful. But most of all, it’s pretentious and sad.

Most of the jobs now being called curator already have perfectly good, descriptive, not-insulting names, like editor, producer, and project manager. The substitution of curator seems to be a way to upscale those jobs with a little eau de art museum (probably in lieu of paying the people who do them what they’re worth). But being an editor, producer or project manager is a high-skill job that takes talent and experience to do well. It’s sad that editors, producers and project managers—or the people who hire them—don’t see that. Be proud, people of many professions! Reject the meaningless curator label!

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