Posted by: kshayes513 | April 12, 2009

What’s Another Word for “Culture”?

I have both a tag and a category labeled “culture.” I’m thinking of changing it, if I can only think of a different word. “Culture” is a very popular blog tag. The trouble is, bloggers who use it and blog readers who click on it, almost always mean only one thing by it: contemporary culture, perhaps even just the culture reflected in contemporary media; and implicitly, whichever aspect of contemporary culture most interests or offends them.

For us worldbuilders, “culture” means the entire body of tradition, shared knowledge, religious belief and practice, art (in the broadest sense), language and behavior that distinguishes a particular group of people from other groups. Someone who clicks on my “culture” tag looking for posts about the “culture wars” is not going to find what they’re looking for here!

So I need another term for what I mean when I say “culture.” Trouble is, “culture” is indeed the correct term for that whole field of study. So what else can I use? My thesaurus suggests “society” “folkways” “customs” “culture patterns” “civilization.” None of these really fits. “Society” means the same as “culture” to most people (the implied sequel being “…and what’s wrong with it”); “folkways” might do, though it seems mainly to be a label for preindustrial traditions and crafts that have survived into modern times; “culture patterns” still has that word “culture” in it; “customs” is too narrow; and “civilization” isn’t equivalent to culture. The Mayans had a culture and a civilization; the Lakota have a culture, but not a civilization.

What’s a worldbuilding blogger to do? I’m already trying out a change of the “culture” tag to “alien cultures” which should at least warn off the culture warriors; but it probably will also discourage fantasy worldbuilders, since “alien” usually is equated with “extraterrestrial.”

I may just end up breaking the “culture” tags into smaller and more specific labels: customs, religion, crafts, traditions, etc. That’s going to be a lot of tags! And some of those will still be lightning rod words, like “Religion”

Unless some brilliant worldbuilder or anthropologist can suggest another term that’s as comprehensive as “culture”, but without all the contemporary cultural baggage?

Update 9/11/2012: you can find a follow up post here, with a more in-depth look at synonyms for culture, plus a name for the process of inventing imaginary cultures.



  1. My first thought was “Worldbook” from roleplaying. These supplemental books for D&D and the like, contain exactly the cultural information you describe.

    Other ideas include
    “Facts and Stats”
    “Travellers Guides” (that that could be funny for those that are looking to plan their next vacation)

    but I keep coming back to Worldbook(s), it makes little sense to a non-gamer, but any roleplayer would instantly know what to expect under that tag. The hope is that Writers would also be able to infer what it means.

  2. Thanks, that’s a good thought for cueing in the roleplayers especially.
    Is worldbook a term used mainly for pencil and paper RPG’s? And if so, what would be the equivalent for computer and online RPG’s?
    Info Dumps: another good term, mainly in the context of avoiding them and finding entertaining and dramatic ways to provide players or readers with the information they need.
    Travelers’ Guides–Get me one for Middle Earth or Discworld, and I’m ready to plan my trip!

  3. I was actually thinking about Discworld as I suggested “Travellers Guides”.

    I ran “Worldbooks” by a couple of friends of mine and they all got it instantly – of course they game with me. (pencil and paper )

    When I asked them about the online equivalent to “Worldbooks” there was a lot of head scratching. None of us play online RPGs, however I think words like “Information”, and “Journal” are used usually in those games, both of which are too vague outside the context of the game.

    One suggestion was to use “WorldEBooks” or “WorldWikis” if the distinction between physical book and big pile of electronic information was necessary. But ultimately “Worldbooks” was the highest ranked choice.

    This was a great question and one that I’m not certain there is an agreed upon answer.

  4. Maybe the problem with the confusion over the word culture is not coming from the word, but the lack of educating others about the word. Your definition is both comprehensive and specific. Maybe the approach would be to use a qualifying adjective with it.

    But other words could face even more confusion. The word race usually is meant to differ Whites from Blacks from Asians, yet we are all in the same race. We differ because of the cultural beliefs and traditions, so maybe culture should be used there. That would explain why a Haitian could be part of a Latino and French culture at the same time.

    Tom Pope

  5. Thanks for the compliment. And its nice to see you’re still reading your way through and finding content worth commenting on, which is an even better compliment.

    Ethnicity is the word usually considered correct now for distinct cultural groups, which can sometimes,but not always, be genetically distinct as well. So again, we have to talk about culture to deal with a major aspect of ethnicity.

    As for race, I think the word is obsolete in a biological sense, where it has no meaning whatever. It’s not yet obsolete in the political sense, unfortunately, but we do seem to be getting closer to that day. I am hopeful whenever I remember my childrens’ reaction to my explanation of apartheid and Jim Crow laws. They both said, “But mom! Dividing people up by their skin color? That makes no sense!”

  6. Speculative Ethnology? It’s the stuff I like the most about spec fic, and something there is too little of. Exploring the cultural history of a people. I’ve developed an interest in comparative folklore and find it fascinating to speculate on what an alien cullture’s stories would be.

    Say “alien” and any more people think illegal immigration.

    “Worldbook makes me think encyclopedia.

    Comparative culture?

  7. “Speculative ethnology” – !!!

    Eureka! I think you’ve hit it!

    I agree, its one of my favorite aspects of good spec fic, and certainly my favorite part of worldbuilding.

    Hmm, a follow-up post may be in order…

  8. […] most searched and visited on my blog for over 2 years.  I suspect that what I was discussing in my original post wasn’t what most people were looking for when they typed in their search window,  […]

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