We’ve talked a lot about how culture shapes our world. Our identities. Our beliefs. Our frames of interpretation.

But what, exactly, is “culture”?

The word originates from the Latin, “colere,” meaning “to cultivate.”

When the word, “colere,” was first used, it was reserved for crop-growing and farming. I’m sure you can already see a correlation between cultivating crops and cultivating people.

We cultivate our crops, nurture them, and help them develop. We cultivate our in-group, nurture them, and help them develop too.

With time, this is what culture came to mean.

Cultura Animi

Knowing the word, “colere,” and its meaning in the crop-growing sense, Cicero, the Roman orator, used the term for the first time in another context: “cultura animi” – “the cultivation of the soul.”

This metaphorical use of the word referred to philosophy. In using the term in this fashion, little did Cicero know, he would be evolving the word’s definition to its modern day meaning.


In the 17th century, the term, “cultured,” came into vogue again, but this time, it was used by European savants to describe refinement and education.

“Boy, they read nothing but classics…aren’t they cultured?”

Again, Cicero drew a metaphorical line from agricultural cultivation to individual cultivation, while this new definition drew a line to societal cultivation.

Way of Life

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the word took on its present-day meaning: the shared commonalities of a group. Most often, in the early usage, national ideals and aspirations were in mind, while, later, anthropology focused the definition as a group’s distinctive way of life.

Edward Tylor, famed 19th century anthropologist, described it in his work, “Primitive Culture”: “Culture or Civilization…is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

This stands as culture’s first formal definition, and you’ll notice Tylor mentioned that culture is “acquired.” It is not inherited; it is learned through socialization.

Shared Patterns

CARLA (the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition) defines culture further as “the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.”

This is probably the most refined definition of culture, and it is the one we will refer to in our discussion next week on human nature.

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