When the word cult was borrowed into English in the early seventeenth century, it specifically referred to the act of worshipping a god, without the negative connotation of today. It comes from the Latin word cultus, which translates to "cultivate", as in cultivating the temple of a god, an act of worship in ancient Roman culture (Cicero famously defined religion as cultus deorum, "the cultivation of the gods"). That comes from the verb colere, which could mean "to till", "to inhabit", or "to protect", and ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European kel, "to turn around". The modern, negative definition of cult emerged in the late twentieth century due to an increased notion of obsessive devotion. Cult following was used in 1898 and phrases like cult status and cult classic are from the mid-1900s.
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a senior studying government and linguistics at Harvard University, where I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.