Friday, May 14, 2010


I like thinking about how words are used and how they travel virally through groups of people. Words like "Doucheoisie," and prefixes, too, like "Celebu-." And now, thanks to a few blog posts about the opening of Mast bookshop on Avenue A, I'm thinking about the word "curated" and what it means these days.

"Curated" popped up in a post by EV Grieve, where an anonymous reader said that Mast's "Focus is on a 'well-curated' collection of art and photography books." This word triggered anxiety in many of Grieve's readers.

from the Times

Erin commented, "The price automatically goes up $15 dollars the minute anyone says the word 'curate.'" Gabriel wrote a dramatic scene about a guy named Mike who curates a sandwich. People started to freak out a little. For myself, I worried that a "curated" bookstore meant the same thing as "artisanal"--pizza, hamburgers, donuts, whatever--something simple turned precious and expensive, part of the hyper-gentrification juggernaut.

After my own visit to the shop, after finding it unfussy and reasonably priced, I wrote that the owner planned to add "a curated selection of new books" to the stock. Reader Baha chimed in, "I'm eating my curated breakfast alongside my curated Cafe Bustelo. Please, Jere, don't help promote this annoying new usage."

So what's up with "curated" and why does it make so many of us upset?


The Times actually did a whole story about this word in 2009. They wrote that curate:

- "has become a fashionable code word among the aesthetically minded, who seem to paste it onto any activity that involves culling and selecting."
- "is code for 'I have a discerning eye and great taste.'"
- is "an innocent form of self-inflation."
- "can be good for one’s image and business."

"Pretentious?" asked the Times, "Maybe. But it’s hardly unusual for members of less pedigreed professions to adopt the vernacular of more prestigious ones."


So the use of "curate" is aspirational, which does put it in the same league as "artisanal." And that makes some people nervous because it signals to consumers something very specific. It signals "exclusivity" and is meant to attract people who yearn to be in the club. It may also repel people who find the use of such words pretentious and exclusionary.

In addition, museum curators really aren't happy about it.


Anonymous said...

great essay! - BN

Rob said...

I encounter 'curated' all the time in my job, where it means human input to annotate and assess information to be put into biological databases. So I guess that's in tune with the original meaning.

It totally turned my stomach to read that phrase 'aesthetically minded' from the Times article. If there's a particular group of people who consider themselves to be aesthetically minded then they should probably be kept on some island colony somewhere.

Jeremiah Moss said...

"human input to annotate and assess information to be put into biological databases" sounds kind of scary.

soylent green?

Rob said...

Haha, no, more like; if you have found out something useful, like what a bit of DNA or protein does, then you want to put that in a database so everyone else will know too. But if you were able to put it straight in the database, then it might already be there and you'd have made a duplicate, or you might be making it up or making an error and the database would be wrong.

So the curator is just there as a man in the middle to coordinate and best make sure the database stays accurate, non-redundant and useful.

To my eternal shame, I still haven't seen Soylent Green!

Jeremiah Moss said...

you have to see it! it has many eerie parallels to life in NYC today.

Jeff Loeser said...

Well, well, well....
Just last week I posted a rant about curating to my blog.

thebubbreport said...

"Curate" does not bother me at all. I think it applies perfectly to books. It's not nearly as bad as they way the word "architect" is being misused by corporate America. "I am the architect of this project" - no Mr. Database Project Manager, you are not Howard Roark, so shut up and get a more appropriate job title.

JakeGould said...

Curate is one of those words that has been tacked onto mundane things to elevate them. But it's also an intrinsically patronizing word since it's latin root connects it directly to someone in the church who is directly connected to keeping the "flock" in line.

In fact, thinkig about the overuse of this word really makes me understand what is so irritating about NYC nowadays: It's all paternalistic and overly centered on someone telling others what to do. I mean, Bloomberg is truly a curator of the modern NYC. Who else would do tons of good things, but also preach about sugar and salt in food?

Creepy all around. And neo-Victorian in a way.

gabriel said...

Ah! You gave props to my sandwich scene already! Werd up. :) no need to post it again. (Having an infant son has put me into a space/time warp...)

Anonymous said...

I am a curator. It's a little frustrating because I worked hard to achieve this position, and now the word is bandied about in a nauseating fashion. it used to be dignified. Now it's just hipster-bleech.