Word Count

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Killing More Zombies: "Curate" and "Reveal"

Last summer I wrote a lot about zombie rules, usage rules that really aren't rules but that we teach, follow, and pass along with little thought anyway — rules like "don't end a sentence with a preposition."

Since then, I've amassed a list of 100 rules, and the list keeps growing. I've discovered that these rules tend to roam in packs. While you might not notice one zombie following you around, a pack is hard to miss. See the same type of rule over and over, and you can start to identify the pack.

Today, I have two zombies to share with you:

  • Don't use curate as a verb.
  • Don't use reveal to mean "a revelation."

Both run with the word meanings pack. These zombies rules don't recognize changes in word meanings or new words. Their creators are perfectly happy with Mr. Webster's original dictionary, thank you very much, and their zombie rules brook with no change in word usage.

Let's go zombie-hunting, shall we?

Don't Use Curate as a Verb

An editor from a discussion list I belong to had caught glimpses of this zombie. Was it true that curate should only be used as a noun?

The noun curate, "a cleric, especially of a parish," dates to c. 1340, deriving from the medieval Latin cūrātus, "of, belonging to, or having a cure or charge," according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

The verb curate, "to collect and organize items and show them to the public," didn't appear until 1934 and originated here in the United States. An art museum curates works of art; a blog can curate articles and publish them in a blog post, as we do at Copyediting. This curate is a back-formation of curator, "a person who collects and organizes items and shows them to the public."

We've had curator a long time, as well. It dates back to 1413, starting life in a religious sense: "one who cares for souls." It picked up the sense we're accustomed to in 1632.

What did folks say the curator did between 1632 and 1934? However they describe a curator's duties, by the 20th century, we had a simple verb to do the job, at least in the U.S. American dictionaries in general recognize the verb with no reservations, and usage guides don't recognize a problem.

We're quite comfortable with the verb, as well. A search in Google Books produces many thousands of instances of curated and curating. I think it's safe to say, if you see the curate-verb zombie shuffling around, you can safely dispatch it.

Don't Use Reveal to Mean "A Revelation"

I found this zombie preying upon readers of a language newsletter. Reveal, you see, is supposed to be a verb: "to make known something previously hidden." It can also be a noun, but only to mean "the jamb of a window or door" (and has a different etymology than the verb).

If you're steeped sufficiently in American entertainment, though, you've heard or read things like:

All right, so here's the reveal. We werelooking at all these different things, and we're going to judge the winner of the reuse contest. —Hoda Kotb, TODAY (2011)

If the zombie creators had opened a few dictionaries, they might have a better rule for their readers.

The term originated in the U.S. broadcast and marketing industries in 1952 and describes a dramatic moment of unveiling. Although American dictionaries don't label it as exclusive to those industries, its usage has mostly been confined to those big, dramatic moments the entertainment industry loves.

Many British dictionaries, such as Cambridge Dictionaries Online, don't recognize this reveal at all, emphasizing the term's American status. Interestingly, most British dictionaries also don't have the "door and window jamb" meaning, either. The OED is an exception, and it labels it with Broadcast and Advertising.

Instead of banning reveal outright, use revelation for common acts of making something known and reserve reveal for more dramatic acts. Remember, though, to keep your audience in mind. Those who aren't as familiar with U.S. culture are likely to be more comfortable with revelation.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday February 6th 2014, 2:01 PM
Comment by: James W. (Fountain Hills, AZ)
I have observed, regarding ending sentences with prepositions, that this zombie rule usually seems fitting, at least to my ear. However, in a few instances, it seems the preposition ending is really the only way to do it without sounding pretentious. I'm reminded of words attributed to Winston Churchill: "That is a rule up with I shall not put."
Wednesday September 10th 2014, 10:14 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
I've often thought some of the disapproval of "curate" and "reveal" had to do with their roles as jargon becoming more visible due to the World Wide Web. In the case of entertainment "reveal" is jargon from a "lower" form of art that has moved from esoteric to commonplace. In the case of "curate", its more recent and rapidly growing association is with online selection of "content" (there's another disliked usage!). Despite considerable familiarity with museum operations in past decades, I had never heard "curate" used as a verb (curators assembled collections or created exhibits) until it popped up in the online sense. In that case, I think to "curate" online content sounds pretentious, as if a tsunami of quotidian digital words and images were as important as unique or rare "museum-quality" art or artifacts.

For another column, perhaps you could take on "solution" as a noun meaning product or service. I think we've already lost that one, although I'm continuing to fight a rear-guard action (or maybe a disorderly retreat).

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