There’s something innately funny about Merriam-Webster’s announcement, earlier this month, that “culture” is their 2014 Word of the Year. “Culture” is the “Scary Movie” of words of the year, which, ordinarily, are supposed to reflect culture (“vape,” “selfie”) without actually being “culture.” Merriam-Webster’s editors are at pains to clarify that they weren’t trying to be meta (which, incidentally, would’ve made a great word of the year back in 2000). The word “culture,” they explain, was simply the word that saw the biggest spike in look-ups on their Web site. Confusion about culture was just part of the culture this year. People were desperate to know what “culture” meant.
It goes without saying that “culture” is a confusing word, this year or any year. Merriam-Webster offers six definitions for it (including the biological one, as in “bacterial culture”). The problem is that “culture” is more than the sum of its definitions. If anything, its value as a word depends on the tension between them. The critic Raymond Williams, in his souped-up dictionary, “Keywords,” writes that “culture” has three divergent meanings: there’s culture as a process of individual enrichment, as when we say that someone is “cultured” (in 1605, Francis Bacon wrote about “the culture and manurance of minds”); culture as a group’s “particular way of life,” as when we talk about French culture, company culture, or multiculturalism; and culture as an activity, pursued by means of the museums, concerts, books, and movies that might be encouraged by a Ministry of Culture (or covered on a blog like this one). These three senses of culture are actually quite different, and, Williams writes, they compete with one another. Each time we use the word “culture,” we incline toward one or another of its aspects: toward the “culture” that’s imbibed through osmosis or the “culture” that’s learned at museums, toward the “culture” that makes you a better a person or the “culture” that just inducts you into a group.