Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism (Hardcover)

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Staff Reviews

In a society in which the word “cult” is tossed around with abandon, the experience and the meaning can feel flat and increasingly difficult to parse. In Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Amanda Montell takes a nuanced look at the language at the root of what we define as a cult and connects it to the various, albeit less deadly, ways we are influenced by insider language in our daily lives. Most of us know of the big ones: 3HO, Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, and Scientology. Some of us may even know more. For example, Kool-Aid was not actually involved in the Jonestown murders; it was the off-brand, Flavor-Aid. These groups employ specific language to create an overwhelming sense of community that later reveals itself as a powerful tool for coercion. But what about Crossfit, SoulCycle, and basic multi-level marketing schemes? Do these count as cults, and upon whom do they prey?

Montell argues that, while not all these ubiquitous groups are as dangerous as the aforementioned “cults,” the linguistic patterns they use are meant to reel people in and keep them hooked, at times to the detriment of the individual. I particularly enjoyed the sections that connect cultish language to the rise of the modern wellness industry, “woke” capitalism, Instagram gurus, and MLMs that target women with a #bossbabe brand of feminism that can feel almost insidious. The writing is modern and insightful, and its analysis is also articulate and empathetic. Montell’s book is not about pointing a finger at who is involved with a certain group; rather, it’s about learning how to decipher insider language and to understand “how its influence works for both good and not so good,” so that we can “participate, however we choose, with clearer eyes.”

— Carmen


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? The reason why so many of us binge Manson documentaries by the dozen and fall down rabbit holes researching suburban moms gone QAnon is because we’re looking for a satisfying explanation for what causes people to join—and more importantly, stay in—extreme groups. We secretly want to know: could it happen to me? Amanda Montell’s argument is that, on some level, it already has . . .

Our culture tends to provide pretty flimsy answers to questions of cult influence, mostly having to do with vague talk of “brainwashing.” But the true answer has nothing to do with freaky mind-control wizardry or Kool-Aid. In Cultish, Montell argues that the key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to language. In both positive ways and shadowy ones, cultish language is something we hear—and are influenced by—every single day.  

Through juicy storytelling and cutting original research, Montell exposes the verbal elements that make a wide spectrum of communities “cultish,” revealing how they affect followers of groups as notorious as Heaven’s Gate, but also how they pervade our modern start-ups, Peloton leaderboards, and Instagram feeds. Incisive and darkly funny, this enrapturing take on the curious social science of power and belief will make you hear the fanatical language of “cultish” everywhere.

About the Author

Amanda Montell is a writer and reporter from Baltimore with bylines in Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Woman's Day, The Rumpus,, and WhoWhatWear, where she is the staff features editor. As a pop linguist, Amanda's insights have been featured in Glamour, Bustle, Refinery29, Hello Giggles, and Bust Magazine. Amanda graduated from NYU with a degree in linguistics. She lives in Los Angeles. Find her on Instagram @amanda_montell.

Praise For…

A fascinating, enthusiastic narrative on the loaded language of cults. — Kirkus Reviews

“A rigorous and fascinating examination of the power of language to spellbind us all. Montell’s command over cultish language makes her as mesmerizing and charismatic as the gurus she dissects.” — Molly Ringwald, actress and author of When It Happens to You

“You will never think of cults the same way again—this is an unforgettable look at human nature and the power of language. I couldn’t put it down. Amanda Montell blends true journalistic sorcery with her trademark humor and intrepid curiosity to create a linguistic narrative so delicious and searingly smart, you will wonder, like I did, can we join her cult? If so, count me in as a follower for life. I’ll read anything this woman writes.” — Chelsea Bieker, author of Godshot

“Whip-smart, engaging, and utterly intriguing. Cultish is a witty and thorough examination of power, community, words, and the junctures between them.” — Alexis Henderson, author of The Year of the Witching

“A playful but canny exploration of the ways language can entrance and beguile us—sometimes past the point of no return.” — Elisabeth Thomas, author of Catherine House

“One of those life-changing reads that makes you see— or, in this case, hear—the whole world differently.” — Megan Angelo, author of Followers

“Compulsively readable and startlingly of-the-moment, this witty, slick, and self-assured book is as intriguing as the spellbinding groups it examines.” — Andrea Bartz, author of The Lost Night and The Herd

“At times chilling, often funny, and always perceptive and cogent, Cultish is a bracing reminder that the scariest thing about cults is that you don't realize you're in one till it's too late.” —

“We’re all susceptible to coercion, and Montell’s phenomenal book that chilling point as clear as can be.” — Bitch Magazine

Product Details
ISBN: 9780062993151
ISBN-10: 0062993151
Publisher: Harper Wave
Publication Date: June 15th, 2021
Pages: 320
Language: English