The Bare Bodkin

The Big Word

What is culture, anyway?  It’s one of those baffling words that at first seem to mean a narrow range of things (stuff such as “grand opera”) and then turn out to cover just about everything—even the New York Post, if you stretch it far enough.  As with art and history, you may find yourself using the word without being too sure what you’re talking about.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines culture as “the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought characteristic of a community or population.”  There.  All clear?  And that’s just the primary meaning; eight others follow, some involving livestock and microorganisms, which perhaps needn’t concern us here.  But one of these eight others is “refinement of taste.”  This is the one we are invoking when we praise someone for being “cultured”; under the primary meaning, only an idiot could be called “uncultured.”  Even a toddler learning to talk is already being initiated into that “totality.”

“My dear sir,” Dr. Johnson told Bos-well, “don’t use big words for little matters.”  Well, when a word becomes this big, I start to wonder if we should use it at all. ...

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