How not to describe your job

Posted on Sun 16 Jan 2011 @ 7.04pm UTC

What is your pet-peeve job description?

We all have one, so man up and own up.

Those who follow Learn English or Starve or my other blog are well aware I’m rather old-fashioned in my views language-wise and bit of a condescending sod against intellectualism and academics in general.

Broadly speaking, that is, very broadly speaking.

Ladies and gentlemen (and anything in between), I present you the word curate.

Arentcha just sick of this odious little verb curate, as in:—

“I curate this exhibition.” (Said to yours truly in the face by an artist, HKART10, 2010)

“I’m going to curate my next garage sale …” (Some blog I forgot)

Curator is not always a curate

Curate is an intellectual word, used by the intellectually or aesthetically minded/pretentious (and Botox whores), and this is how the most of us usually come to hear this word used.

We usually hear curate being used by arty-farty types in art galleries wherein those with filthy lucre nod knowingly and approvingly at high-priced ‘artworks’ whilst having it explained to them by some overpriced artist wearing Gaultier or Armani get-up.

The lowdown

Time for a lowdown on curate right now.

Let’s do it in legal drafting style — saves time, it’s fast, keeps things light, because I’m a lawyer by training but also mainly because my dinner is just about ready and the fact that Dirty Harry will be on telly soon. (At least at the time of this writing.)

* * *


1. No citations. Various sources used, all reliable. I’m refusing to cite sources. It’s just pointless and overweening pretentiousness. We’d just end up CONCENTRATING ON THE CITATIONS and not on the content. We’d be blindsiding ourselves with the credibility, reliability, veracity, citability, ‘robustness,’ [choose the words you like best] of the citations.

2. If you have to have citations, you can find LIMITLESS SOURCES via Google or some other search engines anyway. The Intarwebz has tons of useable and useful citations plastered all over the place, using highly reliable sources such as the Oxford English Dictionary, Encyclopaedia Britannica, etc, so why need me for that?

Word origins

curate (noun)

3. British pronunciation is KYEW-ret (rhymes with ‘blew it’)

3A. American pronunciation is KYOO-rayt (rhymes with ‘Kuwait’).

4. Curate (noun) is from the Mediaeval Latin adjective curatus (‘of, belonging to or having a cure or charge’: point 5 below), itself from the Imperial Latin curatus (past participle of curare, ‘to take care of’). Ultimate root of all these words is the Latin cur or cura (‘care’).

5. The mediaeval meaning of ‘cure’ is ‘of the spiritual charge or oversight of parishioners or lay people.’ (So we’re NOT talking about a MEDICAL cure or anything like that.)

5A. Off-topic: Yours truly took Latin as a school subject. Most explanations you find on the Intarwebz don’t distinguish word origins (or etymology) between Imperial and Mediaeval Latin.

6. Curate (n) also comes from Latin vicarius (‘substitute’), in the sense of an official acting or performing in some special way for a superior. The vicarius was an important official during the time when the Roman Empire was reorganised by Diocletian (reigned AD 284–305). The title vicarius itself remained in use for secular officials in the Middle Ages and is now primarily an ecclesiastical title in the Christian Church. In the Roman Catholic Church, vicarius gave rise to “Vicar of Christ,” the special designation of the popes that replaced the older title of “Vicar of St. Peter” starting in the 8th century AD. (So the pope becomes a substitute for Christ, which is one helluva job promotion if you ask me.)

7. Curate (n) entered the English language in 1300–50 as an ecclesiastical term to mean (and still means) a clergyman. (A clergyman is an ordained member of a religious body, as distinguished from the laity.)

8. By the 1550s, curate (n) additionally meant (and still means) a member of the clergy to assist a parish rector or vicar in the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. (This is the Church of England sense of “paid deputy priest of a parish” first recorded in 1550s.)

curator (noun)

9. Pronounced kyew-RAYT-ter.

10. Shortly after curate (n) entered into English, the noun curator appeared in English in 1362, descended from the Latin curator or curatorem, meaning overseer, guardian or agent.

11. When curator appeared in 1362, it originally meant a curate (above) as an alternative word form.

11A. By early 1400s, curator took on a more secular meaning of a legal guardian.

12. By around the 1600s, curator additionally meant a manager or steward, an officer of a university or a person in charge of a museum, art gallery, library or the like. This is the current meaning of the word.

curate (verb)

13. Pronounced kyew-RAYT (BrE) / KYOO-rayt (AmE).

14. The verb to curate is a back formation of the noun curate, NOT (as most people suppose) from curator.

14A. Aside: Back formations are new words formed by dropping prefixes or suffixes from older words (e.g. diagnose from diagnosis, escalate from escalator, edit from editor, amend from amendment).

15. Curate (v) therefore has the same Mediaeval Latin roots as curate (n), with the same ecclesiastical meaning of ‘to act as a curate in assisting a priest,’ i.e. a paid deputy priest.

16. Curate (v) currently means ‘to act as curator of (a museum, exhibits, etc) to look after and preserve.’

17. Additionally, curate (v) gave rise to the gerund curating.

18. Curating (gerund) means ‘the supervision of a museum, gallery or the like by a curator; the work of storing and preserving exhibits as a special technical skill.’


Proper usage

Rev. Jones is curate to The Rt Rev. Moore of St Nathan’s Parish and works as curator of the town’s Heritage Society photographic museum. (1)

Rev. Smith is to officiate this ceremony and Rev. Williams curates. (2)

19. In sentence (1) above, we can see there is a fine line of difference between the two nouns. Curate carries a ecclesiastical meaning whereas curator a non-religious/secular one.

20. In sentence (2), the verb curate is used in its original and proper ecclesiastical meaning of a deputy priest assisting an incumbent priest in a religious activity (often one specified in church regulations).

Improper/substandard usage

to curate a show (to organise) (3) [link]

stores curate their merchandise (select and offer) (4)

nightclubs curate an evening’s entertainment (present) (5)

websites curate their content (organise and maintain) (6) [link]

21. Sentences (3), (4), (5) and (6) above show the latest modern tendency to use the verb curate outside of its ecclesiastical meaning.


22. Curate(n) is the proper religious term for a special type of clergyman because:—

(a) major dictionaries define it primarily as a religious term (a deputy priest),

(b) the word is Mediaeval Latin in origin, and Mediaeval Latin is mainly the language for religious purposes and varies with Imperial Latin usage, and

(c) English words derived from Mediaeval Latin likewise carry religious references or meanings.

23. Curate (v) is a religious term with historically religious meaning with specified reference to some special types of religious activity because:—

(a) major dictionaries define it primarily and specifically as a religious term (the act of a clergyman assisting another clergyman),

(b) the word was created by back formation from the noun so the reasoning of religious intent given in Point 22 also applies here.

24. Curator (n) is the proper word to describe someone who oversees or supervises the work of a religious or non-religious body because:—

(a) major dictionaries define the word primarily in non-religious terms (overseer, guardian, agent),

(b) the word is derived from an Imperial Latin word (see Point 10) that carries no ecclesiastical or religious references.

25. The fact that all three words look and sound alike is a point of confusion for their proper usage because curate (n) and curate (v) have ecclesiastical origins, meanings and usage — whereas curator does not.

* * *


Do we really have to know the inner technology of these words to use them?

Hard to explain, but kinda yes. Most grammarfags often disguise themselves by hiding behind a veneer of anti-grammaristicality — and then go off on a tangent by discussing the etymologies of the words. I’ve done that already just to please this shameless bunch.

You’re talking ancient history here. The religious part is several hundred years ago. These words don’t have those meanings anymore. Why bother?

They do continue to have religious meanings.

Let’s stay crass and provincial, and rely only on dictionaries. Even dictionary meanings continue to define two of those words with reference to religion.

We HAVE to bother because:—

(a) we’re letting these arty-farty types turn a precise word into a blunderbuss (as Sir Ernest Gowers put it in The Complete Plain Words); and

(b) because the pretentious and the conceited have a habit of borrowing words but not know how to use them.

These Botox whores of intellectualdom want to look smart

— BECAUSE they want to feel special and important

— BECAUSE their inner insecurity or frustration creates an inner need in them to be higher than the rest of us

— BECAUSE they see no way to belittle us other than to browbeat us with highbrow-sounding stuff to create an air of superiority.

You’re talking nonsense. The arty types have their own terminology and jargon, just as scientists or linguists or businesspeople have their own. Why single out the arty types for your rant and depraved opposition?

Well, if you put it that way, it’s unanswerable.

Go to an art gallery or exhibition. Pay attention, observation is in session. Notice how the gallery manager (curator) talks to the customers. Notice how the artist is talking to other artists. Notice how their conversations are liberally infused with fantastic $5 words that are actually meaningless when you think about them.

Let me be the first one to say I’m not one to muscle in on another person’s action if that curator/artist is trying to make a buck and have a little bit of fun off of customers.

What is highly insulting is their argot gets shoved in our face for the rest of us, and indiscriminately so. That’s totally uncalled for.

Jargon and terminology are fine. Using words to hide empty space is just disingenuous.

You sure you know what you’re talking about?

No, I don’t. I just like to screw around with you and bounce your head around corners.

Srsly, feel free to drop some knowledge on us to make us look like retards.

So, what to do?

FACT: To customers who are moneyed but culturally unwashed, curate is highly appealing and have a happy knack of making them part with their cash. (You just have to go to enough of these art roadshows to appreciate this being true.)

FACT: To hardcore investors and venture capitalists (i.e. people who know a thing or two about their money), it’s one of the most offputting words you could use in their faces when you’re pitching over your sales sing-song. (Taking notes?)

The intellectual/arty types (especially those in places like Hong Kong that Noel Coward described as a “cultural desert”) should pay attention to this:—

Truth is, curator (n) is perfectly serviceable for nearly all uses and widely acceptable to any ear as well. Which below is the crisper and therefore better English?

I am curator of this exhibition. (7)

I curate this exhibition. (8)

Hilarity ensues on hearing sentence 2 — so the exhibition has a soul or souls that need taking care of, no?

It’s jarring to the ears for anyone who grew up knowing to a moral certitude that curate (v) is nothing like that.

Curate (v) has been thrown around with too little discrimination and not a little pretension as a fashionable ‘disguise word’ for any activity that involves selecting and caring for something. So we get ridiculous usages such as sentences (3), (4), (5), (6) and (8) above.

Those ridiculous usages are unmooring at least the museum meanings of the words, if not also their religious meanings.

I can appreciate the aesthetically minded tend to intellectualise things more than the rest of us. I have no beef with that. But using curate in this way is spreading it a bit think, I have to say.

The verb curate remains a religious word with a specific religious meaning. Why screw it up like this?

It would be interesting to hear from Roman Catholics how they see a word of religious obligation of theirs becomes debased like this.

Wow, you must be one helluva religious person, right?

Hardly. I just don’t see the point why grammarfreaks spout their prescriptions and then go off on a tangent and produce crap like using the verb curate in places that shouldn’t be used.

* * *

“I know what you’re thinking: ‘Did he fire six shots, or only five?’
Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself.
But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world,
and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question:
‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well do ya, punk?

— Inspector Callahan, Dirty Harry (1971)


© Learn English or Starve, 2011. Images: Curator via Incisive | The finger via c4c.

Posted in: Colour Section