Oh, gosh, where to start! Language is an endlessly fascinating subject to me. What words we use, where those words came from and why we use the ones we use when we use them. Language is the foundation of culture and is used to include or divide, which seems super obvious but also begs the question of why? Why do certain words, in certain contexts evoke a particular response for certain people? Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell doesn’t attempt to provide an answer but instead spends time asking why and how cultish language is used.
Montell uses this book, and the accompanying podcast Sounds Like a Cult, to examine how cult became our go-to word to describe an insular group, be it a religion, gym community, MLM or actual cult. She establishes a definition early on as to what an actual cult could be and why things like SoulCycle and some religions are “a little cult-y” but are not necessarily cults. And on the flip side, she examines how, through the use of purposeful language, a leader can isolate and radicalize members of a group. While Montell is very careful to not pass judgement, she is also clear that there are leaders and groups who cause real harm with their language. Because the purpose of language is to inspire actions.
It would be easy to dismiss this book with a flippant “Everything is a cult!” attitude. But actually reading the book should leave one with the awareness that while every group forms a shorthand and creates an in-group, the truly dangerous leaders purposefully manipulate language with a goal of controlling their listeners.
I would (and have!) recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in language, how we use it and how it has changed over time.