The English poet William Cowper (i.e. Cooper), who lived from 1731 to 1800, wrote a fairly long poem called “Conversation” that begins like this:
Though nature weigh our talents, and dispense
To every man his modicum of sense,
And Conversation in its better part
May be esteem’d a gift, and not an art,
Yet much depends, as in the tiller’s toil,
On culture, and the sowing of the soil.
Words learn’d by rote a parrot may rehearse,
But talking is not always to converse.
As wonderfully apt as that last couplet was and still is, today I’d like to converse with you (even though I can’t hear your side of the dialog) on the senses of the word culture, which English took from Old French. Spanish has the one-letter-different cognate cultura, which is the same form the Romans used. Latin had created cultura from cultus, the past participle of the verb colere, whose meanings included ‘to till, tend, take care of a field or garden.’ The Romans used their verb with the extended meanings ‘to care for, attend to’ and ‘to honor, revere.’ As a result, cultura had the basic sense we still find in the compound agricultura/agriculture, and in addition cultura meant more generally ‘a taking care.’ We’ve extended that even further, so that culture can now also be ‘the beliefs and practices that characterize a society (and in English even a business).’ The literal and figurative meanings of cultura/culture have their parallel in the verb cultivar/cultivate: we can cultivate a talent or a friendship as well as a garden or a bacterium.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman