Etymology of Culture

The word culture is defined by most dictionaries as the customs, beliefs and ways of life of a society, place or time. This involves everything from religion and language to cuisine and music. It can also mean the cultivation of various organisms (typically bacteria) in an artificial setting.


Culture is derived from the Middle French culture, which in turn is derived from Latin. In Latin, culture is written as either cultus, colui, colo or colere. These Latin words can mean: fostering, inhabiting, cultivating, tilling, maintaining, tending to, cherishing, worshiping, decorating and adorning.

The Latin colere eventually evolved into cultura and culturae (meaning agriculture, cultivation, training or taking care of). In Medieval Latin, the word used was culturare.

The earliest reference to the word culture was found in a text from the mid-fifteenth-century.


Many idioms exist with the word culture.

One of them is culture shock (when you go into a new environment and you don’t know how to adapt or react).

Another one is culture hero (somebody who embodies the values of a society).

Also, culture vulture (someone who is obsessed with arts).

These are other, more obscure idioms with the word culture which I won’t get into as it goes beyond the scope of the article.

Culture in Portuguese and Spanish is cultura.


Barnhart, Robert K., ed., Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, H.W. Wilson Co., 1988.

Lewis, Charlton T., Elementary Latin Dictionary, Oxford, 1890.