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.  How did Johnson define it in his own dictionary?  Alas, I’ve mislaid my copy, but, in the 18th century, it carried nothing like its current nebulous breadth of meaning.  Johnson was notable for his succinct and manly definitions of even abstract words.  His voice still booms off the page with a measured resonance as recognizable as the voice of his frankly sententious poetry.

Today, we speak all too readily of “modern culture,” “culture wars,” “multiculturalism,” and “pop culture” (one of the latest variants is “culture of corruption”), but I never use these terms without a slight anxiety: What if some no-nonsense reader demands to know exactly what I mean?  Do I really know?  Instead of “culture,” maybe I should speak specifically about languages, customs, morals, and, above all, religions.

Whenever I have one of these (frequent) attacks of big-word guilt, I ask myself a simple question: Did Shakespeare need this word, or did he get by without it?  After all, he had a pretty ample vocabulary, and he managed to express himself adequately on a wide range of topics.

Not that we must, should, or can confine ourselves to words Shakespeare used, but he does prove you can go far on just 20,000 of them if you have to.  I merely say I’m wary of using too many expressions that might have puzzled earlier generations of English speakers.

Just as I thought.  A quick check of the concordance shows that the great Bard never used the term culture, or even the cognate cult.  So how would I say what I want to say on the subject in a way he might understand?

Be that as it may, one of my favorite magazines is E. Michael Jones’ Culture Wars, a two-fisted orthodox Catholic monthly that never leaves me in doubt about what it means.  It’s frankly about religion, but that spills over into so many other things—politics, the sciences, music—that Religious Wars would be a misleading name for it.

Religion is at the heart of every culture, I suppose, and maybe a culture is the practical expression of a society’s central beliefs in every detail.  But then, “a society” and “beliefs” are also problematic terms; what “beliefs” does our officially godless “society” share?

Who got us all talking about “culture,” anyway?  I can’t trace it beyond Matthew Arnold, not a conspicuously religious fellow, in Culture and Anarchy, who defined it with bold naiveté as “the best that has been thought and said.”  Best?  Says who?  Isn’t that a “value judgment”?

Anyway, by the early 20th century the word had been picked up by nonjudgmental anthropologists (as in “Mayan culture”), by the very judgmental T.S. Eliot (“Notes Toward the Definition of Culture”), and by the mocking Ezra Pound (Guide to Kulchur).  Are you as confused as I am?  Of course you are, I think.

Pound defined a professor as “a man who is paid to talk for an hour.”  I defy you to top that.  And, like evolution, culture is a professorial word, a word that solicits the hypnotic nod.  Say it, and the crowd hushes.  The trouble is that its value-free definition can’t shake off the honorific overtones of “refinement of taste.”  The mania for “multiculturalism” is fueled by egalitarian resentment: How dare we say that one culture is “better” than another?

Even President Bush, for whom the English language is a blunt instrument, feels he must walk on eggshells in this territory: Islam is a “religion of peace,” just like Christianity, Judaism, whatever.  Apparently all religions are, by their very nature, religions of peace, except when “hijacked” by “extremists.”  (Tell it to the Aztecs.)

Generally, culture is what modern Western man talks about when he feels uneasy talking about Christ, Christianity, or even religion.  It’s a huge stopgap, an evasion, a word that tries to do the work of older and more specific words.  The moment we use it, we risk trapping ourselves into a hopelessly roundabout discussion of important things.  And such a discussion usually winds up being confusing and meaningless, trailing off into “I think I see what you mean . . . ”

Never mind Shakespeare; we don’t find the word in translations of the Bible or ancient literature, either.  Can this be why Saint Paul and Aristotle, for example, sound so vigorous, definite, free of any tendency to overstatement and woolgathering?  The same can be said of such modern writers as Orwell and C.S. Lewis.

It pays to increase your word power, as we all know; and a good way to do this is to prune your vocabulary of inflated words.