x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

An argument for sharpening your language

While "curate" and "bespoke" sound impressive in just about any sentence, using such words in their true sense is the most powerful choice.

Words get thrown about a lot these days. But few are used quite so liberally as "curated".

Anyone, it would seem, can be a curator now. Just the other day I saw an advertisement for a "well-curated menu of cakes".

People who re-tweet news articles are styled as "curators of online content". DJs, by default, "curate" from their record collections for their audience.

It's a shame that a word with such a specific meaning has evolved only to lose some of its oomph. The curator was once an owl-eyed, sharp-thinking sort working behind the scenes in a museum. Curators tended to be academics, meticulously labelling and organising objects in a collection, and putting their wisdom into creating insightful exhibitions.

By example, the green grocer does not "curate" the oranges and lemons that sit on his stand every morning. He selects them. Everyone agrees on that. But saying something has been "curated" seems to suggest that more went on than just placing stuff on a table. It's all part of a proliferation of public-relations spiel that is slowly hijacking some of the best words out there in a bid to make something straightforward sound more elaborate.

There are more examples. "Bespoke" used to be about tailored suits; now it can be used for almost anything. It has replaced great words such as "hand-made" or "individually designed" that actually say what's going on. "Bespoke" is an easy one to fling at anything because it evokes an all-encompassing atmosphere of "lifestyle", be it with regards to an apartment or a designer towel rack.

I think it's partly because we live in an age of remakes - films, albums, even books (such as recent horror rewrites of English literature classics), are being mined out and resold. That practice is extending to language: the best old words are being packaged up as something completely different. It's troubling because it means we're not inventing new words or even being all that imaginative or accurate in how we define or describe things.

But back to curating. In saying cake menus and a selection of shoes have been curated, we muddle these things up in art jargon. I think in this case it comes from a big PR idea that art is synonymous with "lifestyle", and that pushing that element really sells. "Curated" and "bespoke" are two words that invite us into an indeterminate, arty place. They're easy-to-use stamps of approval that say to people: "If you understand what we're going on about, then you're in our groove." It's just funny that the role of a bookish curator is being used to this end.

Ernest Hemingway wrote, "all our words from loose using have lost their edge". Lets keep the good ones sharp a bit longer.