Friday, September 5, 2014

"I Like to Really CURATE My Sharks"

Being a language nerd and a writer (… they CAN be different things!), the trends of language within popular culture capture my attention.  Being, too, old enough to have actually said “like totally” unironically – and, indeed, to have known the term irony unburdened by 90s/2000s hipster baggage – I’ve seen some linguistic habits come and go.  Val-speak, only a little overstated in the ancient Nicholas Cage outing, “Valley Girl”, was actually and honestly a “thing” – just a bit before “a thing” became a thing.  Southern people once ate an evening meal we called supper.  And the particular pronunciation my dad used for the word restaurant is long unheard except in memory.

Some trends within the English language do little more than irritate and engender speechifying and complaint.  Corporate-speak is the shining example here, with people in the 80s “interfacing” (conversing) and developing their skill sets and so on, through into the odd tic I ran into at my previous employer, where every sentence began with the word, “So.”  Question, statement – didn’t matter, there was a pervasive inability to commence any utterance without it.

Some, though, are not bad at all.  Or, perhaps, they’re sad hipster jumpings-of-a-verbal-shark.  You decide.

Over the past two years, I have noticed the increasing prominence of the verb, to curate.  Because this is a highly useful term, and hasn’t come across my desk in any memos, I’ve been happy to see its widening utility.  It doesn’t seem to be thrown around improperly, and its unspoken limitation to museum collections never had any basis in any case – and it has a nice feel to it, the word curate.  I like its spelling, its sound, its pronunciation, its slight, soft lilt bouncing between strong consonants.  It’s a perfectly cromulent word.

But recently it made it way into a commercial, in the form of a chubby, bearded, hipster bartender saying, “I like to really CURATE my herbs” as he makes a drink.

Now, we all know that the hipster beard had to be over once the wildly expensive realm of television commercials were using it widely, and we’re required to insert-meta-ironic-post-snark-viral superiority here, because a trend, once over, must be reviled, and publicly, or without the backlash who will know they are being punished for being out of step …


Is the word curate now victim of the inevitable public flogging all the slobby youngsters who followed a trend just last year are on the tipping point of enduring, because it has now been associated with them?  Has “curate” jumped the shark (a phrase, itself, both a tool of all backlash and simultaneously dismissed as having been overdone and missing important artistic points because it is reductive)?

Words absolutely go out of style.  Some stay – some for centuries.  Another fascinating study in the fashion of language is just how OLD some slang we think we invented really is (see also:  every damn word Shakespeare ever wrote – the OED certainly does).

But many, many, many terms and manners of speaking are ephemeral.  This is how Old English became Middle English became Tudor speech became American English, modern British English, pidgin, and a hundred thousand dialects.  This is how sentimentalist contrarians like me choose to pronounse rest-runt like their dads did, despite never saying it that way for 40 years – or choose suddenly to bring “supper” back, because it’s a word with a certain feel, a connection to literature we love, or just to be different.

When Teh Intarwebs was new, it was a big deal just figuring out how we were going to spell email (shall we hyphenate? shall we spell out the whole words, electronic mail?) and in 1999 (… and still …) figuring out what to call the first decade – and second – of the new millennium was the subject of ad nauseum discussion.  When the automobile came along, it was much the same, with options from motor car to horseless carriage coming and going perhaps in a way that seemed almost as fast as the newfangled machines themselves.  And we ended up with multiple solutions, around our various earthly “ponds” …

The older I get, the more aware I am – and glad I am – how deeply irrelevant my outrages are, especially where the English language is concerned.  My ex husband (who graduated magna cum laude in ENLGISH, as he spelt it when he told me about it via electronic mail back in the early aughts) and I get along better and better where grammar is concerned, as the years go by, and I find it almost bewilderingly pleasurable to find out how many rules I grew up on – or just decided on, in a stubborner state of youth – are dead-assed WRONG.

Or incorrect, if you simply must prefer.  Heh.

The non-native prohibition on dangling prepositions imposed on us by Latin-writing monks.  The which/that conundra so widespread most people don’t even compute they exist at all.  Spelling itself.

I still hold to the fact that the word “hatred” exists, but have come to accept that the noun form of that word is going to be “hate” whether I like it or not … and, in fact, that the usage predates even the ancient century in which *I* was born.  By a few more.

I won’t ever buy an INFINITI vehicle, because its name gives me hives (and I’m not a prestige-sucking-by-“exclusive”-brands kind of dilettante …).

I’ll hew, probably always, to standardized spellings – and even insist upon the apostrophe in Hallowe’en – but not because I believe there’s anything like a definitive “correct” way to render our language.  Just because … I’m a heedless maniac in enough ways; linguistically, I gravitate to discipline, even if the discipline is arbitrary and even imaginary.  As in religion, sometimes we just choose a set of rules.  Humans like both to make them – and break them – and, oh sometimes, even to follow them.  Sort of.

So … what do you think?  Has “curate” jumped the shark, along with “jumped the shark” and ironic, slobby hipster boys with beards?  Or will you use it proudly – for your herbs or museum collections or choices in dog food?


TCW said...

We're having friends over this evening and eating in the kitchen. Contemporary UK usage makes that a 'kitchen supper'. Interestingly (to me), the phrase has become more popular since it became common knowledge that the Prime Minister would entertain friends to what he called 'kitchen suppers', presumably to distinguish them from the grand dinners that formal guests got.

In my youth, in the North of England (because meal names are notoriously different from region to region), supper was a light meal eaten at the end of the day. As with 'kitchen supper', there was an implication of informality. (Remember that back then eating in front of the TV was clear evidence of degeneracy and all meals had some formal element.) I think 'supper' has become less common generally as (despite the obesity epidemic) we actually eat less than we used to and the notion of an 'extra' meal at the end of the day is less popular than it was decades ago. In our house I might still say, on our way home after a day that has seen quite a bit of eating, 'Shall we eat properly or just grab a bit of supper before we go to bed?'

My wife (not from the North) disagrees with almost every word of this. And let's not even start on 'tea'.

DLM said...

Hee. Being on the side of the pond where "tea" means iced Lipton to most folks, fortunately I won't have to get started on that one any time soon! Though I am acquainted with some folks who really like to curate their tea ... ;)

Nyki Blatchley said...

Yes, supper is definitely a snack shortly before going to bed. When I was a kid, we tended to have our main meal at midday and called that dinner, so the lighter meal we had around 5pm was tea. I've gradually, over the years, morphed from that to having lunch and dinner.

With reference to the point about some slang being older than you'd think, my favourite example of that is "bird" which over here means a girl or young woman. Most people assume it's 20th century slang, but it actually goes back to Anglo-Saxon and derives from the same word as bride. In mediaeval (or retro) English, it tends to be spelt "burd" and is usually glossed as "maiden". Which is the same thing, really.

But you're doing a great job at curating this discussion.

DLM said...

Hello, Nyki! THANK you for following. And *groan* at the curating jab. :)

In the American South, supper was essentially what is popularly called dinner these days, even as late as the 70s, when I was coming up: the evening meal. For us, it tended to be the main meal, and family time, whereas lunch was a lighter affair we took with us to school. Supper was when we all caught up and learned our manners, then we'd adjourn for evening relaxation ... unless homework was not completed!

Oddly, the large bell on our back porch mom used to ring to summon me and my brother home was called the dinner bell; but used most often at suppertime or at dark. Every kid in the neighborhood knew when the Major kids were being called home!

A recent discussion of the term wifebeater (a sleeveless tank-style undershirt mostly worn by men in the 20th century) brought up a really interesting quirk of language - that some phrases or usages are born of sensational events: ... and even when the event is gone, the usage may live on. Janet Reid's blog community is a great place for these discussions. Here ( is one on English/American (various)/Canadian pronunciations of "aw". Amazing the mileage, from one single syllable!

Stephen G Parks said...

Half a decade ago, I was 'transitioning' out of fundraising and publicity and back into teaching. The hot theme for charities and non-profits back then was to have a multi-writer 'curated voice' blog as a means of expressing depth and breadth of experience and knowledge (I know, this whole sentence sounds like it should be in "").

Reddit would be the prime example of an 'uncurated voice'; Oxfam, British Council, and many charities were examples of 'curated voice.' Since I don't really follow that industry now, I don't know if it's still the hot approach. Internally at least, BC is still doing that.

DLM said...

It probably does not seem like it at times, but I actually do curate the content here on this blog. It isn't always harmonious (I never was a singer), but the threads are at least predictable - pets, costume, archaeology, and writing posts I hope aren't too kvetchy ...