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The word culture is a minefield, without context: different academic subjects use it different ways, and there are implications of snobbery in several uses. OED lists 15 meanings, of which four are classified as obsolete, and a further two may best be replaced by cultivation. The verb most used for most meanings of both 'cultivation' and 'culture' is 'to cultivate'; the associated adjective is cultural.

The derivation is from the Latin verb colĕre, 'to attend to', 'to look after', 'to cultivate'. This was used figuratively to mean 'to respect', 'to pay attention to', 'to care for' etc, and, when this was applied to gods, 'to worship'. The form culture represents the supine stem. (Cultus is the origin of the word cult; and colĕre, which can also mean 'to inhabit', is the origin of colony as well.)
  • The original sense was of 'tillage', or growing food in prepared land. This is nowadays usually expressed by cultivation, except when it appears as a suffix, or 'combination form', as in agriculture, horticulture and such specialized forms as viticulture (the cultivation of grapes (Latin vitis 'grape-vine'), especially for wine-making - when it is also called viniculture (vinum 'wine')), and apiculture (the husbandry of bees (apis, 'a bee')). It may also be preceded by an adjectival element, as in monoculture (Greek μόνος‚ [monos] 'single'), where land is given over to the cultivation of one crop alone, and mariculture (mare, 'sea'), the 'farming' of sea-creatures.
    • In biology etc a culture can be 1) a medium in which micro-organisms are reared, such as agar jelly (perhaps most clearly labelled culture medium, to avoid ambiguity); 2) the result of rearing micro-organisms, such as yeast, yoghurt, or bacteria grown for identification, etc; 3) tissue culture, the result of developing cells taken from larger organisms, such as the various 'lines' of cancerous cells grown and reproduced for the purpose of medical research. There is now a verb 'to culture', meaning 'to grow [such organisms in such culture media]'. It appears unnecessary beside 'to grow' and 'to cultivate'.
  • The sense of 'tillage' developed, in the sixteenth century, to a general sense of 'the development of mental capacities', 'growing, or educating, a mind'. This can be a single mind, or, as it came to be used in the nineteenth century, a social, or group, development.
    • In individual terms, culture began (in the sixteenth century) by meaning 'education', 'development of the mind'. (Until the twentieth century, a physical culture, or development of the body, was also current.) It was used, where cultivation is also appropriate, for 'attention paid to a particular area [of knowledge, art, study, etc]'. One can 'cultivate the arts [or a particular hobby]'; serious students may cultivate a special area of their subject, with a view to research.
      • Diplomats, and social climbers may 'cultivate' particular people: that is, develop a relationship to achieve a particular goal.
    • From the end of the seventeenth century, the sense of 'education' (in the sense of 'cultivated people' = 'educated people [i.e those moneyed people that had been to university and possibly on the Grand Tour]) developed into the idea of 'the objects admired by people of refined taste', 'subjects cultivated by those who could afford them' and generally 'the civilized arts'. This can be specified as high culture; those who aspire to it are sometimes called colloquially culture vultures. According to OED (2008), "the transfer of the meaning 'state of intellectual development' from an individual to the whole of a society occurred in German in the mid 18th cent[ury]" (s.v. culture, n., etymology). It is mostly works of art, literature and so on in this sense that are included in AWE's category labelled culture.
    • High culture is now perceived partly as distinct from such other forms of arts as pop culture (sometimes called mass culture) and its subcultures such as youth culture, drug culture and so on - the artistic and social tastes, the arts and entertainments and styles of life developed by others who want their lives, tastes and behaviour to be considered as equally valuable. (It is these areas that attract the attention of cultural studies: "an academic field of study characterized by a multidisciplinary approach (derived from the social sciences and the humanities) to the study of contemporary (esp. mass) culture" OED.) AWE's category of Popular culture is intended to nod to that. Such meanings have been influenced by the third main branch of the meaning:
  • A culture (count noun) is the term used in social anthropology, archaeology and such social sciences for 'the way of life of a particular society', 'the totality of the behaviours of a particular people'; and (especially in archaeology) 'the tangible remains of a past society'. See further Scott and Marshall (2009)'s definition at <> and Buchanan (2010)'s at <>, or any good work of reference in the social sciences. It is a convenient shorthand (with an obvious risk of stereotyping) to sum up the perceived common factors of the lifestyles of a particular area - be it village, city, country or continent - as 'French culture', 'African culture' or 'Mediterranean culture' (a shorthand to describe the features of life that are common over the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, such as the importance of the olive and lemon in cooking, the tendency to rest in mid-day (the 'siesta', and the sorts of ships, and traditionally their sails, in use from the ports). It is in this sense that AWE has a category labelled European culture, partly for the benefit of readers who have grown up outside the continent.
    • Business and Management Studies uses corporate culture or organizational culture to label the habits of doing work within an organization such as a company, factory or Civil Service department. This gives rise to such other sub-cultures as academic culture, which is the broad pattern of behaviour expected in Universities and other institutions of Higher Education, at least when they are engaged in their proper business. AWE has a category academic culture which may offer readers some guidance.
    • Similar uses may be found in politics, where a manifesto may offer to change the whole culture of a country - or a council, as in "[X] is standing to change the culture at [the. ..] Council from an an arrogant and out of touch council to a listening and responsive council" [sic, despite clumsy [~ illogical] grammar].
    • Archaeologists use such labels as Natufian Culture and Dalton Culture to describe and define the patterns of artefacts, buildings etc found within a given area (for Natufian, the Levant; for Dalton, the southeastern United States) and time-range (about 9000-8500 BCE and 10,500 to 10,000 BP respectively). (More detail about these - and many other 'cultures' in the archaeological sense - can be found in Fagan 1996.)

Some references to culture which readers may find useful:

  • Academics may refer to 'the two cultures'. This is the title of a book published in 1959 by C.P. Snow (1905-1980) called The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution which argued that academic life in Britain is split - damagingly - between two fundamental ways of looking at the world, one dominant in arts subjects and the other in the sciences. This argument - and split - continues.
  • The German version of the word, Kultur, which has influenced much of the above, has had other connotations: "After 1914 culture came into contact with the German word Kultur, and from it assumed, in British eyes, connotations of arrogance and supposed ethnic superiority; and it was mocked by some who tended to distort the spelling (culchah, etc.) to indicate that the acquisition of cultured ways implied an absurd degree of affectation or vulgarity" Fowler.
    • This is reflected in the quotation frequently, but wrongly, ascribed to the Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering: "Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my pistol!" (This is better ascribed to Hanns Johst (1890-1978), whose character Thiemann, in the play Schlageter (1933), says: "Wenn ich Kultur höre ... entsichere ich meinen Browning!" ("Whenever I hear the word culture ... I release the safety-catch of my Browning!") (see Knowles, 2009).
    • The compound kulturkampf has a precise historical meaning: the struggle between church and state over education etc in Germany (headed by Bismarck) between 1872 and 1887; but has also been applied figuratively to many other conflicts, such as that between Flemish-speakers and French-speakers in Belgium.