The English word ‘culture’ has a long and complex history, and now controls a great deal of semantic space in its various senses. ‘Culture’ derives from the Latin cultura, which grew out of the verb colere–to inhabit, cultivate, protect, or honor with worship. It entered English in the early 15thC via the Fr. culture, which referred to the practice of agriculture, and by the 16thC had been extended to refer to the advancement or cultivation of the mind. The English usage was notably influenced by the development of another word, ‘coulter’ (ploughshare), whose corruptions came to include another ‘culture,’ easing the other’s metaphorical expansion.

Over time, the popular use of the metaphor and the generalization of particular processes allowed ‘culture’ to further expand its semantic turf. Here the adaptations of culture to other languages began to influence English usage as English and continental philosophers exchanged literature and attempted to define the essence of man and society. The German Kultur (originally Cultur, and also from Fr.), at this point, described the secular development of the human intellect or acted as a direct synonym for civilization. From this 18thC Kultur came the most important work influencing English usage: Herder’s Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind. This work spoke, for the first time, of plural “cultures” pertaining to different nations, eras, and social groups, and it was this usage that was adopted and developed by the Romantic authors, who shaped it into a revolutionary replacement for ‘civilization’ and introduced the concept of folk cultures.

In modern usage, there are three (non-biological or -agricultural) uses: as an independent, abstract noun referring to intellectual and artistic work; as an independent, abstract noun describing the process of intellectual development; and as an independent noun indicating the particular way of life of some social group. Here, however, it varies by language and discipline whether culture refers to human or material production, and its many uses have excited considerable debate and hostility. Hostility in English appears to have arisen around Matthew Arnold’s controversial ( if unintentioned) use of the word in reference to class delineation. ‘Culture’ gained further stigmatization around WWI, when so much German propaganda centered around ultranationalistic worship of Kultur. Although that particular hostility abated with time, use to distinguish based on class and educational background is still controversial. Surprisingly, the anthropological uses of ‘culture’ and ‘cultural’ (as in sub-culture) have helped eliminate such hostility, but with so complex and subtle a history, the skerries and even the core of culture are likely to remain under the social and anthropological eye for centuries to come.

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