Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism

Amanda Montell

The author of the widely praised Wordslut analyzes the social science of cult influence: how cultish groups from Jonestown and Scientology to SoulCycle and social media gurus use language as the ultimate form of power. What makes “cults” so intriguing and frightening. What makes them powerful. more

NonfictionAudiobookPsychologyHistorySociologyCultsReligionLanguageTrue CrimeLinguistics

309 pages, Hardcover
First published Harper

3.88

Rating

75673

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10247

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Amanda Montell

3 books 2131 followers

Amanda Montell is a writer, linguist, and podcast host living in Los Angeles. She is the author of three nonfiction books, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language, and The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality (forthcoming April 9, 2024 from OneSignal). She is also a creator and host of the hit podcast, Sounds Like A Cult. Amanda’s books have earned praise from The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Kirkus Reviews, and more. Cultish was named a best book of 2021 by NPR, was shortlisted for several prizes including the Goodreads Choice Awards and getAbstract International Book Award, and is currently in development for television. Sounds Like A Cult won “Best Emerging Podcast” at the 2023 iHeart Radio Podcast Awards and was named a best podcast of 2022 by Vulture, Esquire, Marie Claire, and others.

Amanda’s essays and reporting have appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, and elsewhere. She was born and raised in Baltimore, MD and holds a degree in linguistics from NYU. Find her on Instagram @amanda_montell or Substack at amandamontell.substack.com.

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Petra on hiatus but getting better.Happy New 2024!
2457 reviews
34693 followers
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The book is much more about actual cults than the language they use. The title indicated that there was a concentration on the linguistics of cults, but that, to me, was misleading. I don't know if there is a person left alive who actually needs scientology explaining to them so it comes across as filler. I would call Jonestown, Heaven's Gate and Scientology cults, but MLMs and other commercial companies, like SoulCycle and Peloton. While there might be similarities in the idea of hooking a person by inclusiveness and perhaps special language into continuing to part with their money, this is not the same as cults which require belief as in 'faith', as in religion, both of which the Jonestown massacre and Scientology had as their base. more


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Jossi
9 reviews
1 followers
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This book is terrible, and I strongly advise not reading it. It seems to be an awful combination of poor writing and insufficient editing. As some other reviewers have written, it's all over the place and poorly organised. The author's relentless and pointless signposting is infuriating: nobody wants to read '(More on that shortly)' and '(More on that in a bit)' in any book, much less a short one. An index could direct a curious reader to all mentions of, say, Jonestown. more


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Emily (Books with Emily Fox on Youtube)
574 reviews
64068 followers
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If you don't normally pick up non fiction books. this might be for you. I really enjoyed this book. The talks about scientology, MLMs, CrossFit. but I don't think that the focus was on "the language of fanaticism". more


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emma
2002 reviews
63516 followers
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hey girlboss. are you looking for a side hustle. make some major $$$changes$$$ by reading this book. anyway. i'm not saying that the girls you had one class with in college who instagram-message you scam side hustles that start HEY GIRLYPOP are as bad as cult leaders. more


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BlackOxford
1095 reviews
68817 followers
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Emancipate Yourselves From Mental SlaveryBob Marley had some sensible universal advice: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. ” Jesus had been slightly more explicit when he said, “The truth shall make you free. ” Martin Luther King probably summarised the issue best, however: “No one is free until we all are free. ” Amanda Montell, like Marley, Jesus, and MLK wants us to be free. She wants to liberate us from the covert linguistic manipulation of QAnon, Trump, and the hundreds of other conspiracy theorists, politicians, religious leaders, and exploitative commercial ventures that are after our attention, our money, and our souls. more


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Andy
1555 reviews
512 followers
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The topic is important but the discussion here was unfortunately often at the level of "let me tell you about my friend who was a Scientologist. ". more


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Rhiannon Johnson
847 reviews
297 followers
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I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I've been recommending this book to everyone. I learned so much and I keep thinking about it--even weeks after finishing it. Cults, cultish groups, religions, cliques, and communities of all types fascinate me. I always think to myself "why are they drawn to this leader, lifestyle, or way of thinking". more


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Julie
4126 reviews
40815 followers
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Cultish- The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell is a 2021 Harper Wave Publication. I have not read, ‘Wordslut’, so this is my first experience with Amanda Montell. As a person with a genuine concern, and curiosity, about cults, how they operate, and what draws people to them, this book was a no -brainer for me. It did not surprise me one bit that language is a foundation upon which cults are built. In order to understand how the cult gains its momentum, one must look at the language employed to lure people into making a dedicated commitment to whatever activity, group, organization, or religion is being promoted. more


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Andrea Bartz
62 reviews
2051 followers
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Witty, slick, and self-assured, CULTISH will change the way you view the interplay between language and power. Yes, it sparkles with muscular prose and snappy asides, but this book's true wizardry is how Montell peels back the veneer over topics we're confident we already understand—brainwashing, indoctrination, even the term "cult" itself—and demonstrates how a few potent verbal tricks, wielded correctly, render us more susceptible to cultish influences than we'd like to think. Compulsively readable and startlingly of-the-moment, CULTISH is as intriguing as the charismatic leaders and spellbinding groups it examines. more


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K.J. Charles
2088 reviews
9581 followers
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Interesting dive into how cults are primarily language-driven, and how language both draws us in and keeps us in. Particularly good on Internet cults (QAnon) and on the things she calls cult*ish*, like MLMs and CrossFit, that use those techniques. It's entirely American, as she acknowledges, linguistically and culturally (USians are apparently suckers for the prosperity gospel in its many forms), and I would have really liked to see some more wide-ranging examples covering a broader cultural spread, and to see how that might affect the language and techniques. Very much worth reading anyway, if only to get a heads up on what the apparently bizarre language choices are doing. . more


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Jenny
2 reviews
0 followers
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The author made sure to let us know right away that she isn't susceptible to cult tactics the way the average person is. She then patted herself on the back throughout the whole book for her ability to see red flags. What she didn't do was tell me anything about how language truly influences smart, successful people into cults. There were some minor factual errors in her histories, and she glossed over the truly horrific events in cult history in a way that felt minimizing. Everything was surface level and the tone didn't work for me. more


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Jess Owens
336 reviews
5000 followers
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Will be processing thoughts but this was fine. We discussed it here: https://youtu. be/jrraYjfPjgYTL; DR: great place to start with nonfiction. It’s very accessible and easy to read. I don’t know a better phrase but it’s very surface level on the topic of cults and language. more


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Dea
584 reviews
1 followers
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Update: I had a bit of a think, and I feel justified in taking away another star. The 'cultish' organizations that are covered in the book seem to be 'girly'. (I hate to use that word but I could not think of another one. ) MLMs and spin classes and Swifties are all domains occupied predominantly by women, but what about male spaces that are cultish. Sure there was talk of CrossFit but what about MRAs and Incels and MGTOWs. more


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Denise Johnson
2 reviews
0 followers
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A page-turner. This book is important. Montell breaks down the psychosocial influences that entice and reward people for joining communities that promise enlightenment and self-improvement. While most provide some sort of tangible rewards, others strip followers of money, autonomy, and even their lives. How can you tell a relatively benign self-improvement program from a suicide cult. more


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Emily
74 reviews
3 followers
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This book should've been called: "Oopsie: I Don't Really Know What I Want to Write About. " I guess I missed the red flags on this book's synopsis: "Though juicy storytelling and cutting original research, Montell exposes the verbal elements that make a wide spectrum of communities. " After reading this, I think the "cutting original research" is another way to say that Amanda Montell ran some Google searches, read a couple of articles leagues better than her own writing, and dumped in a heavy helping of her extremely opinionated "analyses" to the mixture. When that was all done, she threw in a pinch of "juicy storytelling," AKA Montell exhibiting her social/intellectual superiority to all her brainless readers because she is wise enough to identify the warning signs in cult recruiting tactics—and has second/third hand experiences with these cults, no less. Oh yeah, and did I mention that this book barely talks about the language of fansticism. more


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s.penkevich
1113 reviews
8616 followers
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Linguistics, cults and dunking on marketing. This is hyper-specifically my shit. more


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Casey Aonso
114 reviews
3722 followers
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reminded me a lot of a religion course i took in uni that i loved (lmfao). was interesting to see a lot of the elements of non religious (in the traditional sense) communities (i. e soul cycle, mlms) used to draw the conclusion that they’re cults whereas in that course it’d been seen more as showing how elastic the concept of religion is + how it can be used when you strip it down to the main reasons people are so tied to it (community, purpose, enrichment etc). if im being honest i think i lean more toward the latter conclusion than the former that this book tries to argue. if you’re someone who is obsessed with reading about cults/fanatic companies this might feel redundant (i felt this most during the mlm portion as i went through a phase of spam watching documentaries about herbalife + lularoe), so the breakdown of how it works + why people do it felt a bit tedious but i feel like it’s not fair to slight it for that. more


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Rachel L
1928 reviews
2388 followers
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4 stars Cultish is a broad examination of the language of cults by linguist Amanda Montell, and this book really focuses more on the language of cults. Whether it be the language of an actual cult like Heaven’s Gate or groups that use cult like language such as soul cycle. Montell is not saying all of these things are actual cults, but their rise and everyday use of language is cult like. I thought this book was incredibly fascinating and I thought the author did a wonderful job of keeping things broad on the subject and using specific examples to emphasize her points. I think what a lot of people misunderstand when reading this book is she’s not calling things like Soul Cycle or Crossfit cults, but instead pointing out where their success follows cultish language. more


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Ashley Rossetto
46 reviews
3 followers
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I loved this book. Montell writes in a language that is both scientific but accessible to someone like me, a complete lay person who has no background in anything discussed within the book. As someone who generally DNF non-fiction books, I found myself unable to put this one down. The connections that Montell drew between seemingly every day things like social media influencers and the language of cults, as just one broad example, (or cult leaders/recent world leaders and the idea that say-it-like-it-is honesty leadership is really just having a lack of filter) made sense in the way she presented them. I really enjoyed this book and took copious notes throughout the whole thing. more


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Brandice
970 reviews
0 followers
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My nearly life long fascination with cults is inexplicable — Why do I find them so interesting. In Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism Amanda Montell explains how cults establish their influence using the power of language. As someone who has long been intrigued by the idea of cults, I knew I had to read this book. I’m a skeptic by nature and quick to drop a polite yet firm “No” when solicited for anything I’m not interested in, but recognize, of course, not everyone operates this way. Montell talks about traditional cults like Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, and Waco, in addition to modern forms of cults like SoulCycle, MLMs (aka pyramid schemes), and more. more


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Kelly
2340 reviews
1219 followers
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I think what I especially loved about this deep dive into how language drives people to behave/engage with "cult-like" and actual cult organizations is how it's not judgmental. It's a linguistic approach to how our brains are wired to build connections and ideas through words and it's through immersion in these words and ideas we find places we want to be . . . thus why SoulCycle or Peloton have such fanatics, as do actual cults themselves. more


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Krista
1437 reviews
685 followers
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Though “cult language” comes in different varieties, all charismatic leaders — from Jim Jones to Jeff Bezos to SoulCycle instructors — use the same basic linguistic tools. This is a book about the language of fanaticism in its many forms: a language I’m calling Cultish. I was drawn to read Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism for reasons of my own (more on this later)*, but despite the book’s pop-sciencey blurb and Amanda Montell’s self-description as a “linguist”, this wasn’t nearly as language- or academic-based as I had hoped. Montell gives some overviews of groups we undeniably think of as cults (Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, Scientology) — including quotes from conversations she’s had with people who successfully fled those groups — and she makes some generalisations about the language tools that their leaders used to recruit and retain members. Montell then casts a wider net in search of groups that use “cultish” language — from Amway to CrossFit and QAnon — and makes judgments as to how pernicious these organisations are. more


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Mara
1756 reviews
4064 followers
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This felt like the more formally researched and argued version of a lot of TikToks I've enjoyed. and I mean that in the best possible way. This was a distillation of many disparate ideas floating in the internet zeitgeist, and it was interesting to see those ideas brought together in a cohesive, persuasive format. Definitely interested in more from this author, as an intersection of linguistics and pop culture seems to be her thing . more


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Matt
3972 reviews
12903 followers
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I first encountered Amanda Montell‘s work a year or so ago, when she dissected the world of language and how it has inherent gender pitfalls. In this text, Montell unwraps how language is used to develop strong followings or serve to persuade people into various collectives. After some great background, Montell labels this language as ‘cultish’, right up there with English, Spanish, and even French (yes, I see that the last breaks the fluidity of examples). Montell effectively argues that language can be used in subtle or blunt ways to coerce or convince the population to believe or disbelieve certain things. While many people are surely visual learners, the means by which language is used can have a major influence on decision making, something Montell shows repeatedly throughout the tome. more


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David
694 reviews
351 followers
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The erosion of faith and community has left a vacuum for people starved for connection. A distrust of traditional institutions and a need to belong has proven fertile ground for the growth of cults from the tame to the terrifying. And it's not just credulous smooth brains — the people most likely to join a cult are generally intelligent, cheerful and most of all, optimistic. They are seeking some better way. And whether it's Scientology or SoulCycle, cults and cult-like brands rely on language to reel us in. more


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Mari
749 reviews
6499 followers
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I enjoyed this as a combination of a lot of my different interests. This was about language, it will appeal to fans of studying pop culture, and of course it dives into fanaticism and cultish behavior. I wouldn't say that any one part got particularly deep. It reads like a primer and isn't particularly well organized, though that lent to a readable and conversational sort of tone. I feel like if you well versed in cults, this might not appeal much to you, but for anyone curious about how language is used to organize and control, this is and interesting and fast read. more


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Kasia
220 reviews
28 followers
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I find it quite shocking that a book written by linguist can be so unpleasant to read - and I am not talking about the topic of this book but about the way it is written. Apart from bizarre phrases like "[they] trade their whiteness", "gigaparsec-length eyelashes" or "regrammable" I found it very chaotic and often loosing train of thought. I picked up this book hoping for a good insight into the language of fanaticism because this is literally what the title of this book promises. First couple pages try to adhere to this promise and provide you with some basic knowledge about the most common manipulations used by questionable gurus (like love-bombing, loaded language, thought stopping cliches, creating "us vs them" mentality, developing an insiders lingo and so on) but then suddenly it's not about language it's about why Donald Trump was a horrible president. Or whats the story of the MLM. more


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Scott
1882 reviews
205 followers
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"What techniques do charismatic leaders use to exploit people's fundamental needs for community and meaning. How do they cultivate that kind of power. The answer, as it turns out, is not some freaky mind-binding wizardry that happens on a remote commune where everyone dons flower crowns and dances in the sun . . . more


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The Atlantic
338 reviews
1635 followers
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"'Cultish', a forthcoming book by the writer and linguist Amanda Montell, is an absorbing examination of the one thing cults and 'cults' (think Jonestown and the Manson family, but also Peloton and Glossier) have in common: their manipulation of language. Montell argues that buzzwords, mantras, coded language, and forced silence are how these groups and brands build a sense of power and belonging, 'getting people to a point of extreme devotion and keeping them there. '" —Sophie Gilberthttps://www. theatlantic. com/summer-re. more


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Kevin Kelsey
426 reviews
2266 followers
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This is a terrific introduction to the linguistic aspects of cult groups and fanaticism in general, written for a general audience. Incredibly interesting and entertaining for someone that isn't already familiar with Heaven's Gate, Scientology, Shambhala, Yoga Gurus, Jim Jones, etc it's a fantastic introduction to the ways these organizations and individuals use(d) language to manipulate and control their followers to act in ways against their own self-interest. The chapters on fitness cults like CrossFit, Soulcycle, and Peloton were incredible. And the finishing section on QAnon and social media reads as a warning for a future of unstructured cults with little to no leadership. Absolutely terrifying in its implications. more


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