A week or two ago, that familiar chime of “Word of the Week!” sang out through the house. I looked up–ever eager for a new word to add to the list–and said, “Oo! What?”

My husband replied with, “Cult and culture. They’re clearly related, but I’d never stopped to wonder how.”

Neither had I! But it’s definitely one of those things that you immediately go, “Of course they are!” Right? And indeed they are…but I hadn’t paused to think about how until I looked it up.

Both cult and culture come from the past participle of the Latin colere, which means “to tend; to guard; to till; to cultivate” and which developed into the Latin cultus, which means “care, labor; cultivation, culture; worship, reverence.”

Wait…what? Are you (like me) wondering why tilling the ground is related to worship and reverence? Hmm. The etymologists don’t actually offer any explanation of that, but anthropology may. If we look back to the early societies, they were all agricultural and it’s easy to see where that act of bringing life out of the ground became linked to worshiping the bringer of that life, whether one’s society was mono- or polytheistic. It may also have to do with the time, care, and ritual that go into both tilling the soil and serving one’s God.

It certainly explains why our word for farming the land is agriculture, right? I’d never paused to notice that before either!

Culture made its way into English first, in the farming sense, in the 1400s. The figurative sense of “cultivation of the mind through education” was noted occasionally, as early as 1500 but didn’t really become a common usage until the 1800s. It was then further extended to mean “the collective achievements of a group of people” around 1867.

Cult joined the language in the 1600s, meaning “a form or system of worship.” It’s worth noting that there were no negative connotations on the word until the mid 1800s, when it began to be used more frequently, and generally in reference to primitive peoples and their worship.  By 1829, it meant “devoted attention to a particular person or thing,” which is where our modern sense comes from.

Both, however, still retain that tie to the root, and to words like cultivate and agriculture. Fascinating, isn’t it?

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