Jeffrey Aronson: When I Use a Word . . . Curiosity

Jeff Bezos, hoping to retard ageing, is reportedly investing in a company whose stated aim is to do curiosity-driven research. I wonder if he has contemplated the nature of curiosity.

Curiosity, or wondering (how, whether, why, etc) is one of the prerequisites for successful research. It implies a desire to know or learn. It comes from the Latin word cura, which means worry or care about anything, a person or thing that is the source of worry, command, a responsibility, post, or task, concern or solicitude, taking care, and therefore the treatment of a sick person or illness.

The Latin verb curare means to care about, watch over, care for, or have charge of something or someone, to undertake a task, or to administer remedies. And the derived adjective curiosus means full of care and therefore careful, diligent, or painstaking, eager for knowledge, inquisitive, or simply curious. The derived noun, curiositas, means excessive eagerness for knowledge, inquisitiveness, or simply curiosity. Many English words contain the cur- root: cure, curate and curator; curette; curio and curious; accurate; manicure and pedicure; procure, procurator, and hence proctor and proxy; secure and sinecure. In some cases cur- becomes sur-, as in sure, assure, ensure, insure, and reassure.

 Curiosity comes in several forms. Under the heading “desire to know or learn”, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives three choices:

  • In a blamable sense: the disposition to inquire too minutely into anything; undue or inquisitive desire to know or learn.
  • In a neutral or good sense: the desire or inclination to know or learn about anything, esp. what is novel or strange; a feeling of interest leading one to inquire about anything.
  • Inquisitiveness in reference to trifles or matters which do not concern one.

Curiosity supposedly killed the cat, as the proverb has it, presumably referring to the first and third of these meanings. The original form of this saying was “care killed the cat”, and the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs dates it first to the late 16th century. In Much Ado About Nothing (1598), for example, Claudio tells Benedick that “though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care”. And Ben Jonson, in Every Man in His Humour (1598), linked it with another proverb: “Hang sorrow! Care’ll kill a cat.” Given the etymological connection between care and curiosity, it may be that confusion between the two led to the modern version, the earliest instance of which the OED dates to 1868. There is also an old rhyme that goes “Curiosity killed the cat / Information made it fat.” But the history of the saying, and what obesity may have had to do with it, is unclear.

Be that as it may, the curiosity that did for the animal is clearly of the overinquisitive type. And there are many other examples. Both Eve and Pandora, for instance, brought ruin on themselves and others by curiosity about matters that they had been warned not to investigate. And when Odysseus’s men opened the bag that Aeolus had given him, curious to know its contents, they let out all the winds and suffered the resultant shipwreck.

But many quotations support the proposition that curiosity is also praiseworthy. The OED includes one from James Hayward’s 1632 translation of Giovanni Francesco Biondi’s Eromena, or love and revenge: “A noble and solid curiosity of knowing things in their beginnings”. For his part, Samuel Johnson had much to say, in The Rambler and elsewhere: “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind” and “Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last” and “A generous and elevated mind is distinguished by nothing more than an eminent degree of curiosity.” Anatole France was also a supporter: “The whole art of teaching,” he wrote in The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (1881), “is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards”.

Curiosity of this kind is an excellent basis for research. The surgeon Russell John Howard (1875–1942), according to The BMJ one of the London Hospital’s “best-remembered men”, said that “the first attribute of a surgeon is an insatiable curiosity”.

To which I would add, “and of researchers”.

Jeffrey Aronson is a clinical pharmacologist, working in the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine in Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences. He is also president emeritus of the British Pharmacological Society.

Competing interests: none declared.