Cultivate

Submitted Anonymously

Anonymous writes:
Although the official definition does include “to make friends with” and “to foster the growth of,” this word is so overused in fundraising circles. Let’s not insult the intelligence of our donors by using fake, “poetic” words to describe our efforts to raise money. Cultivating is for crops.

Tony responds:
This submission evidently refers specifically to the use of “cultivate” in the fundraising trade. I have never been much of a success at fundraising, and I feel a certain awe toward the people who are. It’s a tricky business, trying to get people excited about your cause while also, quite obviously, trying to get your hands on their wallet. Those who can pull off both the emotional and the fiscal demands of the job are, in my view, artists.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that every word they choose is a work of art, of course. But is “cultivate” really “fake” poetry? Yes, its literal meaning applies to gardening and farming. But does the fundraisers’ use of the term really stretch it beyond legitimate figurative use? Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s first (and to my eye, liltingly poetic) definition of the word:

“to bestow labour and attention upon (land) in order to the raising of crops; to till; to improve and render fertile by husbandry.”

Two features of that definition strike me. First, “land” is in parentheses. Evidently, even in the word’s primary definition, the OED editors felt that the meaning was not rigidly restricted to literal cultivation of the soil. A second definition refers to the cultivation of plants in the same way: the word “plants” is in parentheses, again perhaps suggesting that the literal meaning is just a point of departure.

The second striking feature of this first definition is the lovely phrase “to improve and render fertile.” Apart from its nearly Biblical overtones, that combination strikes me as a fair description of the fundraiser’s art: trying to “improve” their donors with a greater understanding of some important field of endeavor, while also rendering that donor “fertile” to the cause.

No writing is made better by slavishly using every word only according to its most literal meaning. Where would we be without metaphor and imagery? And in this case the OED seems to be giving us explicit license to construe the definition broadly. In fact, people have used that license for at least 300 years that we know of: The dictionary traces the fundraisers’ use of “cultivate” back to 1707, with the definition “to bestow attention upon a person with a view to intimacy or favour; to court the acquaintance or friendship of.”

I imagine that the real reason some people take offense at this elliptical use of “cultivate” is that it has become so ubiquitous that it’s lost any poetic zing it might have had. In truth, that is a common offense of many words on our “jargon” list. It’s not that they’re obscure, or ugly, or misused, or even too highfalutin’. It’s just that they’ve been overworked and we’re sick of hearing them.

“Cultivate” may well be guilty there. I am not enough of a fundraising adept to know for sure. But if someone were after my money (an unlikely prospect, I’m afraid), I wouldn’t at all object to first being “improved” before being “rendered fertile.” Outside the garden, there are bloody few transactions in this life where both things are possible, and I’m happy to write an ode or two for any that fit the bill.

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