From Memorialize to Curate, Curator, Curation: What Do They Mean?

Have you noticed how often you’ve heard memorialize lately?

It has emerged primarily in the context of former FBI Director James Comey’s having made a written record of — in other words, memorializing — his conversations with President Donald Trump.

Many words in the English language have more than one meaning — or shades of meaning — depending on context.

I consider this description from vocabulary.com the most common meaning of memorialize:

The word memorialize often is used in relation to someone or something that has passed away or even to a group of connected individuals who have perished. You might see a monument, for example, that memorializes victims of an earthquake, meaning it pays tribute to them. You can also memorialize someone in a speech, meaning you talk about the person’s life and describe how he or she has affected others.

But memorialize can relate to anything produced with the intent of having it continue to exist, to last.

curate / curator /curation

Another word — curate — and its siblings curator and curation are popping up here and there.

I began paying attention to curate, and thus curation, a couple of years ago when an email from the Curation Team at Unsplash with “the best new photos” hit my inbox. (As I write this, my spellcheck program still flags curation as either not a word or misspelled.)

Respected merriam-webster.com offers a narrow description of curate:

a member of the clergy in charge of a parish; or a member of the clergy serving as assistant (at to a rector) in a parish

It defines curator as one who has the care and superintendence of something, especially one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit.

It lists a one-word definition for curation: cure

Is merriam-webster.com behind the times?

Yet fastcompany.com (Hmmm … does fast imply that it is more in step with today’s language usage?) offers this definition of curation:

Curation is the act of individuals with a passion for a content area to find, contextualize, and organize information. Curators provide a consistent update regarding what’s interesting, happening, and cool in their focus. Curators tend to have a unique and consistent point of view — providing a reliable context for the content that they discover and organize.

Another source — a blog by a Milwaukee Art Museum staff member — defines curate as a verb in terms of what it means in her context:

Curating in a museum requires research, idea development and refinement, project management, budget management, programming considerations, educational training, decisiveness, and even interior decorating skills.

And a New York Times writer claims:

‘Curate,’ lofty and once rarely spoken outside exhibition corridors or British parishes, has become a fashionable code word among the aesthetically minded, who seem to paste it onto any activity that involves culling and selecting.

We all know that language evolves, that meanings of words change and new words emerge. I’m going to let this British blogger have the last word on curate:

Do you use ‘Curate’ when ‘Organise’ will do? Well you shouldn’t …

A Curator has spent years training and learning, often volunteering or working low paid, precarious jobs to get where they are. They don’t simply organise; they constantly work on a collection to improve its documentation or storage, they spend hours agonising over emergency plans and loan requests, they worry about dust and pests and they do their best to make sure that the collection they care for will survive into the future.

Yes, language evolves. Select your words with care. They can have implications that either fall short of or go beyond what you intend to communicate.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)