WORD IN THE HAND: CURATE
Art and editors managed fine before this rotten egg was laid
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Words are like food and clothing (and washing machines) in that they go in fashionable cycles. One day everyone’s eating sushi and the next day it’s ceviche. One day berets are red and the next they are black. One day everyone’s saying “cool” and the next it’s “sharp” or “manifold” – which hasn’t taken off yet but I don’t see why it shouldn’t.
There’s a word that has been tumbling around full of hot air for much longer than its allotted cycle, and that word is “curate”. By now it should have had all the life spun out of it and been hung out to dry. Yet still everything gets curated. And the most annoying thing about the annoying people who use this annoying curate word so annoyingly often is that they’re not actually misusing it.
Curate is not historically a verb but as we should all know by now, any noun can be verbified, even hedgehog.
I’m not joking – “to hedgehog” may not yet exist in dictionaries but in philosophical circles it means to narrow down your topic and think harder about it, or “say more about less”, as a certain professor keeps telling me.
The verb hedgehog can be blamed on Greek poet Archilochus (680-645BC), who wrote: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Whatever he might have meant by this at the time, Archilochus’s observation has since been adopted and adapted by philosophers from Isaiah Berlin to Ronald Dworkin in the interests of encouraging clearer and more unified reasoning, or something.
But let’s get back to curate. As a verb it is younger even than hedgehog. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the first recorded use of curate as a verb meaning “to organise” was in 1979. For five or six centuries before that, a curate was purely a noun and merely a priest. (Perhaps he organised people’s souls but he’d never have said he was curating their blessings.)
The back-formed verb “to curate” moved way beyond souls to art exhibitions, cushions, shoes and even the content of newspapers. Again I’m not kidding – many who might once have called themselves editors are now curators. Instead of editing, they curate.
This pretentious nonsense makes the curate’s egg a thing of even greater beauty. “The curate’s egg” is an expression you don’t hear much these days, even though you’ll find it listed as an idiom in almost every English dictionary. Most of these dictionaries will tell you it means “something partly good and partly bad” and all of these are wrong.
The curate’s egg was laid in a Punch cartoon called “True Humility”, published in 1895. In the comic sketch, a young curate is having breakfast with a higher churchman. Each man has a boiled egg that has been cut open and placed on the table before them. The reader can’t smell the curate’s egg but it has clearly announced its rotten nature to the nose of the Right Reverend Host, because he says: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones.”
The curate – who is either trying to impress Rev Host or is one of those people who doesn’t like to complain in case the cook spits in his replacement egg – protests, saying: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!”
Of course the curate’s egg is not partly good. Eggs, like leaders, are either rotten or not rotten. You can’t go through them with a teaspoon and scoop out the healthy, uncorrupted bits.
So the curate might be making the best of a bad egg but in reality it is as thoroughly off as the odious verb “curate” when applied to anything other than an art collection (and perhaps even then – after all, what’s wrong with plain old “manage”?).
The 1895 cartoon, incidentally, was drawn by George du Maurier, grandfather of Daphne du Maurier, she who wrote Rebecca, and My Cousin Rachel, and a bunch of other novels. Apart from his cartoons, George was most famous for his novel Trilby, published in 1894. Not many people remember the book but almost everyone has heard of its hypnotist villain, Svengali.
Svengali was a manipulative misogynist whose name, as they say in curated advertising copy, “has stood the test of time”. A couple of weeks ago the Washington Post ran an article beginning: “The days of Republicans praising President Trump as a Svengali of politics, a master of the media and distraction, are surely over.”
Svengali was rotten to the core, but (setting aside the above example) his name is often used to describe a less offensive character, someone who means well and just doesn’t see how he might be harming the person he tries to curate.
For instance, Dr Frank Bryant, played by Michael Caine in the 1983 film Educating Rita, has often been called a Svengali, which doesn’t seem entirely fair. Incidentally, Educating Rita was loosely based on the 1956 musical My Fair Lady, which was based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion, which was based on an ancient Greek myth. All good in parts.