The context of my question is a philosophical reflection on the concept of culture in the anthropological sense.

The anthrological concept of "culture" dates from Tylor: culture 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.”

It is often asserted that "culture" comes from "cultura": first agriculture, then "cultura animi", and finally all the qualities men gain from living in society, all the qualities by which men are distinguished from the savages.

Deriving "culture" from "cultura" leads to associate the idea of culture with the idea of progress. It tends to make of culture a normative idea.

It also suggests that the idea of "culture" in the anthropological sense is a new one, a new meaning added to "cultura" in the 18th–19th century.

But couldn't it be asserted that, in fact, "culture" does not derive from "cultura" but from "cultus" , which meant "way of life, customs of a people".

In the Gaffiot Latin Dictionary, I find: "funera sunt pro cultu gallorum magnifica" Caesar, G. , 6, 19,4.

This would lead to a different idea of culture: culture is everything men (belonging to a given society) respect, take care of, what they honor (and first of all traditions).

My question is: could there be, at the origin of the modern use of the term "culture", a confusion between "cultura" and "cultus"?

Could it be a case of "false etymology" as when french erudites wanted to write "savoir" as " sçavoir" (mistakenly deriving it from "scire", while it comes from "sapere").

  • 3
    "Deriving "culture" from "cultura" leads to associate the idea of culture with the idea of progress. It tends to make of culture a normative idea." This assertion really doesn't make any sense to me. I think you need to unpack this a bit and really think about whether that logical leap is justified.
    – cmw
    Nov 30, 2019 at 5:57
  • @C.M.Weimer. At " colo" I read ( in Gaffiot) "taking care of" , but also "to ornate" . When one " cultivates" , one develops , tends to make the cultivated thing better. Hence the idea of improvement, of progress.
    – user6328
    Dec 1, 2019 at 19:08

1 Answer 1


Both cultus and cultura come from the verb colere. You could also derive cultio from the same verb, but for some reason that never became popular. All these three words mean essentially the same thing. These are all formed from the same stem (with rare exceptions).

We have a separate question about the similarity of -us and -io. We don't seem to have a comparison to -ura yet (that would make a nice separate question!), but my experience suggests that the meaning is not substantially different. Yes, individual words might end up with slightly different meanings (like cultus and cultura), but I am not aware of any substantial systematic difference.

The point is: There is no difference in original meaning between cultura and cultus. They have taken slightly different nuances over time, and, more importantly, both have a wide variety of meanings. They are not identical, but they overlap a lot. From this point of view it makes no difference whether a word is derived from cultura or cultus.

It seems clear to me that the English word 'culture' comes indeed from the Latin word cultura. But as is typical with loan words, the meaning has changed a little, and keeps changing over time. Etymology does not imply meaning, and it is dangerous to read too much into it. The modern definitions of culture are inspired by the Latin word cultura, but it is a stretch to say that the Latin word had the same meaning. Different people will understand the English word 'culture' slightly differently, too!

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