[siv-uh-luh-zey-shuh n]
See more synonyms for civilization on
  1. an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached.
  2. those people or nations that have reached such a state.
  3. any type of culture, society, etc., of a specific place, time, or group: Greek civilization.
  4. the act or process of civilizing, as by bringing out of a savage, uneducated, or unrefined state, or of being civilized: Rome's civilization of barbaric tribes was admirable.
  5. cultural refinement; refinement of thought and cultural appreciation: The letters of Madame de Sévigné reveal her wit and civilization.
  6. cities or populated areas in general, as opposed to unpopulated or wilderness areas: The plane crashed in the jungle, hundreds of miles from civilization.
  7. modern comforts and conveniences, as made possible by science and technology: After a week in the woods, without television or even running water, the campers looked forward to civilization again.

Origin of civilization

1765–75; < French civilisation; see civilize, -ation
Related formsciv·i·li·za·tion·al, adjectivede·civ·i·li·za·tion, nounhy·per·civ·i·li·za·tion, nounin·ter·civ·i·li·za·tion, nouno·ver·civ·i·li·za·tion, nounpost·civ·i·li·za·tion, adjectivepre·civ·i·li·za·tion, nounsub·civ·i·li·za·tion, nounsu·per·civ·i·li·za·tion, noun

Word story

Civilization entered the English language in the mid-18th century with the meaning “the act or process of bringing out of a savage or uneducated state.” In this preimperialistic age of exploration, it was popular to view people from less-developed lands as barbaric and in great need of cultural edification. As political scientist and historian Anthony Pagden wrote in a 1988 paper, 18th-century social theory held that a civilization was “the optimum condition for all mankind.” He continued that “only the civilized can know what it is to be civilized,” pointing out the implicit elitism of this concept. As imperialism boomed in the 19th century, this meaning of civilization gained popularity, but today it is considered narrow-minded, except when used in a historical context.
Once a nation, culture, or group of people has been brought out of the “savage” darkness into an enlightened and advanced state, it becomes a civilization. This sense arose about the same time, but without the imperialistic undertones attached to the original meaning of the word. When used with a modifier, it refers to the civilization of a specific region ( European civilization, French civilization ), people ( Mayan civilization ), or period of time ( modern civilization ).
In the early 19th century, speakers of English started using civilization to mean cities or populated areas in general—that is, places where civilizations are located. This word is applied as well to the comforts and conveniences associated with populated areas, so that today we might use civilization to describe what we have left behind if we go camping in the wilderness and have no cellphone coverage.
Related Quotations
  • "We have allowed our civilization to outrun our culture; we have allowed our technology to outdistance our theology and for this reason we find ourselves caught up with many problems."
    -Martin Luther King Sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood American Rhetoric (delivered February 26, 1965)
  • "As lower individuals within a society perish by contact with a civilization to which they cannot properly assimilate themselves, so ‘lower races’ in some instances disappear by similar contact with higher races whose diseases and physical vices prove too strong for them."
    -J. A. Hobson Imperialism: A Study (1902)
  • "The cities of the Roman Empire served as centers of Greco-Roman civilization, which spread to the furthest reaches of the Mediterranean."
    -Marvin Perry, Margaret Jacob, Myrna Chase Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society, Volume 2 (2009)
  • "The mighty forces of steam and electricity were propelling civilization on its continuing westward march."
    -Joseph M. Henning Outposts of civilization: race, religion, and the formative years of American-Japanese relations (2000)
  • "[A]ll the good things which are connected with manners, and with civilization, have…depended for ages upon two principles…the spirit of a gentleman and the spirit of religion."
    -Edmund Burke Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in certain Societies in London relative to that Event (1790)
  • "Civilization was an unknown quantity, whereas the jungle was familiar to himself and his ancestors, and the fear transmitted by his ancestors was firmly emplanted in his mind."
    -Ellen Newbold La Motte Civilization Civilization: Tales of the Orient (1919) Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

Examples from the Web for civilization

Contemporary Examples of civilization

Historical Examples of civilization

British Dictionary definitions for civilization



  1. a human society that has highly developed material and spiritual resources and a complex cultural, political, and legal organization; an advanced state in social development
  2. the peoples or nations collectively who have achieved such a state
  3. the total culture and way of life of a particular people, nation, region, or periodclassical civilization
  4. the process of bringing or achieving civilization
  5. intellectual, cultural, and moral refinement
  6. cities or populated areas, as contrasted with sparsely inhabited areas, deserts, etc
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for civilization

1704, "law which makes a criminal process civil," from civilize + -ation. Sense of "civilized condition" first recorded 1772, probably from French civilisation, to be an opposite to barbarity and a distinct word from civility. Sense of a particular human society in a civilized condition, considered as a whole over time, is from 1857. Related: Civilizational.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper