Clash of cultures

by Mellissa Martinez

Recent events have me pondering a very popular word—culture. If you turn on the news, open a paper or listen to the radio, you’re sure to get an earful about gun culture, youth culture, marriage culture, the culture of violence, cultural exchanges, cultural diversity, military culture, wars on culture or multiculturalism. I have started to wonder, is culture a habit, tradition, group, high standard or is it all of this and more?

Most people associate ‘culture’ with ‘heritage,’ placing it after race, nationality or religion to express shared values of the group, as in American culture, Latino culture or Jewish culture. This use, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Many times ‘culture’ is combined with other nouns or verbs, representing age, sports, activities or affiliations. Consider the common expressions teen culture, skating culture, gay culture, male culture or car culture.

There are also terms like cultural gap, cultural diversity, culture shock, counter culture and subculture, and let’s not forget the more contemporary pop-culture, food culture and movie culture.  A person or a pearl can be cultured, an event or experience can be cultural and one can find culture in cities, museums, music, yogurt and petri dishes. The word is so versatile that it can be paired with just about anything without causing much of an eyebrow raise; culture refers to breeding, tradition, knowledge, background, philosophy, good manners, education, elegance or sophistication.

Surprisingly, this multi-meaning word comes from one place—the earth. In the mid 1400s, ‘culture’ came into English from French, meaning ‘the tilling of the land,’ which had come in turn from the Latin cultura, ‘cultivation or agriculture.’ Today, not only ‘agriculture,’ but also ‘horticulture,’ ‘viniculture’ and ‘cultivate’ maintain their earthy connection. When ‘culture’ first came into English, it was literally for half a century. A figurative meaning didn’t emerge in our language until the 1500s when ‘cultivation through education’ came about. At this point, ‘culture’ started to be used to refer to the intellectual side of civilization—those who tilled their minds, so to speak.

The Romans, however, did have a figurative meaning of the word early on, which came to English as ‘cult.’ The Latin cultura, from the past participle of colere, basically had 2 meanings, ‘to tend, guard or till’ and, because of the hard work and dedication that went into tilling the land, it was also used for ‘care or honor.’ When this metaphorical form came into French, it was shortened to culte. Eventually, the word grew to include ‘worship and reverence.’ By the time it appeared in English, it had lost all association with working the land and maintained its ‘worship’ connotation. Although ‘cult,’ ‘a religious sect’ and ‘culture’ seem worlds apart, they are actually from the same word. 

Another surprising relative of ‘culture’ is ‘colony,’ which was the name given to an ancient Roman settlement outside of Italy. It came from the Latin colonia, ‘settled land, farm or estate,’ which is also from colere.  This parent word is believed to have derived from the Proto Indo European *kwel- ‘to move around.’ Kwel led to the Greek kyklos, ‘circle, wheel or cycle of events,’ and eventually the Latin Cyclus, which gave English the words ‘cycle’ and ‘wheel,’ further kin of ‘culture.’

In the 1700s, the adjective ‘cultivated’ generally meant ‘developed under controlled natural conditions.’ This led to the biological use of ‘culture’ and to ‘cultured pearls’ later on. Around the mid 1700s, philosophers referred to an enlightened mind as ‘cultured’ and by the end of the century the notion of intellectual culture was commonplace. Perhaps the most common modern meaning of the word, ‘the collective customs of people,’ came about later in the mid 1800s.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “a nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” If we are willing to dig a bit deeper, it is clear that culture may be found not only in our hearts, souls, but also in our religion, water, minds, customs, farms and certainly in the land we live on.


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