What is Culture?

It is important especially in academic writing to have clear definitions for words and terms used. This is not always easy, meanings are continually changing and many words have more than one meaning depending on the context. In this post I try to investigate the true definition and where the word came from.

The Oxford english dictionary defines culture as “The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016). The Cambridge english dictionary defines culture as “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2016).

The history of the word starts in medieval times and comes from the word cultivate when referring to the ‘cultivation of land’ (Williams, 2016, p. 242). The latin french origins cultura and culture respectively also refer to farming land. The first sign of its meaning changing was Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan first published 1651 which uses culture to describe the education of children, ‘the education of Children a Culture of their minds’ (Hobbes, 2008, p. 163). Raymond Williams (1953), describes William Wordsworth’s use of the word in The Prelude (1995) as ‘genuinely transitional’; when he uses the word in both the older sense of process, ‘be left to droop by timely culture unsustained’, but also uses it as an absolute, ‘Salutes the Being at his birth, where grace of culture hath been utterly unknown’. This according to Raymond Williams was the first time culture was used in the modern sense of the word (Williams, 1953).

The search for a definition of culture felt like traversing a tangled web of ambiguity leading from one historical piece of literature to the next. There was no single definition which encapsulated all of the meanings but maybe that’s okay, maybe the job of someone using the term is to clearly define the context they use it in.


Cambridge Dictionary (2016) Culture meaning in the Cambridge Learner’s dictionary. Available at: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/learner-english/culture (Accessed: 5 December 2016).

Hobbes, T. (2008) Leviathan (Oxford world’s classics). Edited by J. C. A. Gaskin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA.

Oxford English Dictionary (2016) Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/culture (Accessed: 5 December 2016).

Williams, R. (1953) ‘The Idea of Culture’, The Cambridge Quarterly, 3(3).

Wordsworth, W. (1995) The prelude: The Four texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850): Four texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850). Edited by Jonathan Wordsworth. New York: Penguin Group (USA).