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Rewriting the Zombies: “Curate” and “Reveal”

I’ve written a lot about zombie rules here. Zombie rules are grammar rules that follow you around like the undead. They’re not really grammar rules, though. Some are stylistic choices, while others are made-up nonsense to make English work more like Latin. In this occasional series, you’ll learn why the rules don’t work and what rule you can follow instead.

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 zombie rules don’t recognize changes in word meanings or new words. Their creators are perfectly happy with Mr. Webster’s original dictionary, thankyouverymuch, and their zombie rules brook with no change in word usage.

Let’s go zombie hunting, shall we?

Zombie Rule: Don’t Use Curate as a Verb.

An editor from a discussion list I belong to glimpsed 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. 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 for 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. 

Rewriting the “Curate” Zombie

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 US 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 643,000 instances of curated and 167,000 instances of curating. I think it’s safe to say, if you see the curate-verb zombie shuffling around, you can dispatch it.

Zombie Rule: 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. American dictionaries don’t label it as exclusive to those industries, though the OED does. Its usage has mostly been confined to those big, dramatic moments the entertainment industry loves.

Rewriting the “Reveal” Zombie

Instead of banning reveal outright, use revelation for common acts of making something known and reserve reveal for more dramatic acts. A version of this article originally published In February 2014 on Visual Thesaurus.

2 thoughts on “Rewriting the Zombies: “Curate” and “Reveal”

  1. In stage set design, a reveal is a partial piece of scenery, often nonfunctional, outside the playing area, and intended to be seen through an upstage door, window, archway or other opening. Examples would be an apparent thickness on an arch in a flat, a tree branch visible thru an upstage window, and a painted flat with a perspective of a distant horizon behind a door


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