Inculcate

By Maeve Maddox

Judging by the Google Ngram Viewer, the verb inculcate has declined considerably in popularity in recent decades. So, apparently, has understanding of its meaning.

inculcate: to teach and impress by frequent repetitions or admonitions; urge on or fix in the mind; to cause (a person) to become impressed or instilled with something.

Because inculcate is a transitive verb, someone or something inculcates something on, upon, in, into, or to someone:

Teachers inculcate irregular verb conjugations in children by drilling the forms.

Ministers inculcate religious principles into their congregations by way of sermons.

Unscrupulous rulers inculcate feelings of helplessness and inferiority in their subjects.

Inculcate derives from a Latin word meaning “to stamp on or grind in with the heel.” The “culc” part comes from Latin calx, “heel.” The OED shows two examples of the word being used in the literal sense of treading something underfoot, but the figurative meaning of “persistent repetition in order to instill something on the mind” is the meaning with which the word has been used since the 17th century. Until now.

The following passages, gathered from articles written by bloggers and professional reviewers, use inculcate as if it means something like “infiltrate,” “fit in,” “blend in,” or “become a part of”:

Cowed by forces of nature, disadvantaged by bad luck (lost anchors, broken generators), and hampered by their shared malaise in finding refuge from their inner demons, Patterson and Lang both try to inculcate themselves into the lives and cultures of the Pacific Islands…

Though Buford is trying to inculcate himself into the society, he himself is hurting his chances by labeling the people who form the society as “thugs.”

According to the new tell-all, Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford by Donald Spoto…the actress, “desperate to make herself worthy, studied French and took opera lessons,” all the while trying to inculcate herself into his dynastic tree.

In an episode of the television drama Bones, where Booth and Bones catch a cannibal, Bones says she can intellectually understand the evolution of cannibalism and might even consent to try it if she was trying to inculcate herself into a culture for anthropological study.

Perhaps the writers of the above examples were reaching for the word acculturate. The noun is acculturation.

acculturate (verb): 1. to adapt an idea or object to a culture different from the one in which it originated.

2. to cause a person or group to adapt to or adopt a different culture.

3. to adopt or adapt to a different culture.

Examples:

The French … tried consciously to acculturate Africans in their colonies, making them citizens of France.

Like the Cherokees, the Iroquois were under intense pressure to acculturate.

You know you have acculturated to Japan when you eat whatever is in front of you regardless of whether or not you recognize the food group it belongs to.

Here are some unobjectionable examples of inculcate used to mean, “to fix in the mind”:

More damaging are the habits which they [electronic devices in the classroom] inculcate in the young — the surfing mentality which is always looking restlessly toward the next image, message or sensation.

There is a recent push in U.S. hospitals to inculcate a “culture of safety.”

We invite, even require, our young to gain entrance to institutions intended to inculcate ethical values by engaging in unethical and demeaning practices.

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2 Responses to “Inculcate”

  • thebluebird11

    Besides “acculturate,” some other words come to mind that these incorrect users of “inculcate” might be groping for, such as “insinuate” or “infiltrate,” maybe even “penetrate.” So for example: “…both try to insinuate themselves into the lives and cultures of the Pacific Islands…” There is another word I’m trying to think of that would fit the context here, but I can’t think of it and couldn’t find it in my thesaurus. It’s maybe like what a spy does, along the lines of infiltrating an organization to become an inside man. Maybe you know the word I’m trying to think of (unless it’s infiltrate, which I already mentioned). I’m imagining something like the way a chameleon tries to blend in with its surroundings, the people in your examples are trying to do that. Inculcate is definitely NOT the right word and it kind of grosses me out to hear it used that way!

  • Andy Knoedler

    I agree with thebluebird11 that the word your errant authors were reaching for — but missing — was “insinuate.” It sounds a bit like “inculcate,” also takes the preposition “into” and has a strong overtone of the sinister to it.

    M-W defines “insinuate” thusly: “to gradually make (yourself) a part of a group, a person’s life, etc., often by behaving in a dishonest way.”

    The authors you cite were probably looking for “insinuate” but might have been put off by suggestions of the other meaning of the word, namely “to introduce (as an idea) gradually or in a subtle, indirect, or covert way ” (M-W.com).

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