Words: Culture

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PRESIDENT Clinton said in his funeral oration for Jacqueline Kennedy that 'she taught us about the beauty of art, the meaning of culture'. Which meaning? One of Matthew Arnold's many definitions was 'the pursuit of sweetness and light' and Jackie dispensed quite a bit of these, but the President may not have been thinking of Arnold's essays. No doubt he had in mind not only Jackie's taste in art but also her career as a publisher, since publishers, despite some evidence to the contrary, are supposed to be cultured.

His remark is unlikely to have been made in Britain, where the word culture lacks the gravitas that it carries in the States. It was already being mocked 120 years ago by George Eliot, who wrote contemptuously of the English habit of going abroad in search of it without being too clear what it was. It got into more trouble after the Second World War, when fashionable educationists became wary of introducing pupils to the best in art and literature for fear of being thought too elitist. Among the few who could use it without being thought rather pretentious were the anthropologists and sociologists, for whom culture was a neutral word; the culture they were interested in, such as that enjoyed by mods, rockers and primitive islanders, might be unconnected with any sort of excellence. Biologists were also allowed it; it had, after all, started life as a husbandman's term. The land was cultured, rather than cultivated, a 17th-century coinage.

Leaving aside its specialist uses, culture still tends to be the sort of word that has us reaching for the delete button, unless we distance ourselves from it somehow; we may speak of culture-vultures or culture-hounds. Dylan Thomas called Americans 'culture snobs'. A section in the Sunday Times devoted to what journalists used deprecatingly to call 'the long-haired stuff' is entitled 'The Culture'. It sounds jokey, which is perhaps what it is meant to be, but I find it vaguely ridiculous.