Glossary Item

culture

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A recent etymology of the word "culture":

Look in an old dictionary -- say, a pre-1960 Webster's and you'll likely find a definition of culture that looks something like this: "1. The cultivation of soil. 2. The raising, improvement, or development of some plant, animal or product" (Friend and Guralnik 1958). This use of the word has its roots in the ancient Latin word cultura , "cultivation" or "tending," and its entrance into the English language had begun by the year 1430 (Oxford English Dictionary ). By the time the Webster's definition above was written, another definition had begun to take precedence over the old Latin denotation; culture was coming to mean "the training, development, and refinement of mind, tastes, and manners" (Oxford English Dictionary ). The OED traces this definition, which today we associate with the phrase "high culture," back as far as 1805; by the middle of the 20th century, it was fast becoming the word's primary definition.

However, if you try a more modern source, like the American Heritage English Dictionary , you'll find a primary definition of culture which is substantially different than either of the two given above: "The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought." Why such a difference, and in such a (relatively) short period of time? Well, in the past 40 years, the use of the word "culture" has been heavily influenced by the academic fields of sociology and cultural anthropology. These fields have gradually brought what was once a minor definition of culture (the last of eight definitions given in the old 1958 Webster's quoted above) into the mainstream.

It is easy to imagine how the U.S. society which was so focused on "socially transmitted behavior patterns" in the sixties would come to need a word to describe the object of its interest. The civil rights movement during this era brought everyone's attention to bear on cultural differences within U.S. society, while the Vietnam War served to emphasize the position of the U.S. culture in relation to other world cultures.

Over time, these new uses for the word culture have eclipsed its older meanings, those associated with cultivation of the land and the production of crops. You might say that an aspect of U.S. culture over the past 40 years is its fascination with the issue of culture itself -- a fascination which has brought about many changes in the way we speak and the meanings of words which we commonly use.


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