The Culture Did It

A semantic innovation gets us all off the hook.

Illustration by Greg Clarke



THE indefinite articles "a" and "an" and the definite article "the" account for almost 10 percent of all the words we use, and in most cases they are no more obtrusive than a heartbeat. But leave one out, or put one in an unexpected place, and the effect can be substantial.
Slavic languages are famous for their lack of articles. The trait carries over into how some Slavs speak English, and this has long been a target of parody. (Here's the cosmonaut Lev, in the movie Armageddon: "I hear rumor on radio. My country broke. No steaks in freezer.") Adding an article before a noun that usually lacks one can bring about a variety of shifts in tone. Learning calculus and Greek was tough -- how much more romantic to have been able to study "the calculus" or "the Greek," as the Victorians did. Sometimes the definite article adds a pretentious note. I know of a socially ambitious commercial building where signs above the escalators direct visitors to THE SHOPS and THE OFFICES. Last year's Ryder Cup tournament was held near Boston at an establishment called simply The Country Club (and don't forget the annual Harvard-Yale gridiron encounter, The Game). In Celtic lands the definite article before a proper name designates a clan leader: Michael Joseph O'Rahilly, one of the martyrs of Ireland's Easter Rebellion, in 1916, is known in Irish history textbooks as "The O'Rahilly." A similar acknowledgment of singularity was bestowed by Sherlock Holmes on Irene Adler, the only person ever to outwit him; according to Dr. Watson, Holmes referred to her afterward as "the woman." The comedian Lenny Bruce once pointed out that there were a lot of churches and denominations in the world, but Catholicism was the only "the" religion -- there was only one "the Church."


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These attributes of the definite article come to mind because, judging from the evidence on the airwaves and the printed page, the word "the" has begun to flourish in a new semantic niche: in front of the word "culture." We all know what culture without an article is. It can refer to any product of human fabrication (stone tools, the Venus de Milo, Rhapsody in Blue, paintings on velvet) or to the folkways of a localized anthropological milieu (Samoa, the San Fernando Valley, Microsoft). But the term "the culture" connotes something bigger and broader than all these others. "The culture" is imposing and autonomous, and implicated in just about everything.

The moderator of the National Public Radio program On the Media not long ago began by matter-of-factly lamenting a "coarsening of the culture." A headline on an article in WebMD Medical News declares, "Teen Binge Drinking Starts Early, With Help From the Culture." The actor and writer Eric Bogosian comments, "I think the level of irony and aggression has become just so absorbed in the culture that me throwing myself around out there doesn't rub people as wrong as it used to." A Detroit columnist describes guns as "embedded in the culture, like strip malls and cheeseburgers." A vice-president of the Southern Baptist Convention speaks of the need for members of his denomination to remain engaged "in the debates that are going on in the culture." The publisher Victor Navasky, recalling his education in a politically radical experimental school in the 1940s, declares, "We were outsiders in the culture."

The references sometimes get a little confusing, because "the culture" that different writers cite isn't always the same one. William McGurn, of The Wall Street Journal, is conjuring something elitist, leftist, modernist, and in control of all news, entertainment, and advertising when he spells it "the Kultur" and writes, "The Kultur's painting of Southern evangelicals as closet Klansmen is a vicious caricature." Brent Staples, writing in The New York Times earlier this year about a rampage of sexual harassment that occurred in Central Park, had a different, retrograde "the culture" in mind when he subtitled his editorial-page commentary "How the culture normalizes sexual harassment and abuse."

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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