Okay, language lovers–You have to add Cultish to your to-read list! Amanda Montell’s explorative work weaves together several interviews and primary accounts of people who have been entrapped by the linguistic power of, yes, cults, but also of organizations like Crossfit or multi-level marketing schemes. With each former cult member and cult-like group that Montell examines, she picks apart the diction that is used to isolate and persuade potential followers–and how saturated our society is with this linguistic phenomenon.
She begins by discussing the heavily debated difference between religious groups and cults. It turns out that even incredibly well-researched academics cannot narrow down criteria that technically distinguishes one from the other. One difference that has been pointed to, though, is the age of the organization or faith-based group. Christianity, Islam, and Judiasm are ancient and that passage of time grants a respect to organized religions that newer organizations do not have. They do, however, still use language that makes individuals feel special and eventually creates a divide between them and those outside the group. Cults, Montell argues, do this as well and then some.
What sends cults and cult-like groups into territory that alarms most people in ways religion doesn’t is the way they warp language. A commonality amongst all the groups that Montell examines is how they expand the standard definition of words in the English language to fit their needs. The end result is believing in a shared language that is fundamentally different from the vernacular our society uses to function together, which is ultimately divisive.
Montell also debunks and demystifies the idea of “brainwashing,” explaining that it is incredibly unlikely for so many minds to be overtaken by buzz-words, mantras, and glossolalia against their will. For one’s mind to become complacent in what we colloquially refer to as “brainwashing” they must already be in a state of mind where they want to be controlled and validated. There is a “charisma” that cults have, Montell argues. They make people feel safe and not alone, which is attractive to most and is the reason why so many people get caught up in cultish groups.
As someone who loves words and how powerful language is, I hung onto every word of Cultish. There is an incredible variety to Montell’s research, which provides an approachable reading experience that allows you to put it down and pick it back up without disrupting the narrative flow. I could write many more paragraphs about her findings and arguments, but I will leave you all with this sliver of insight into this riveting book. I cannot recommend this enough!
This title is also available as a Book-on-CD.
I recently ordered this book for the library’s 400s – which is Dewey Decimal-speak for books about languages – and I’m so excited about it. This is a book which “poetically defines emotions that we all feel but don’t have the words to express”, resulting in a riot of whimsy and thought-provoking word creation.
Started as a website in 2009, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows has captured the hearts of many, including John Green who said it “creates beautiful new words that we need but do not yet have.” It includes such words’ definitions as ‘sonder’, the feeling of wondering about strangers, realizing that their lives are as vivid and complex as yours is, ‘anemoia’, the nostalgia for a time you’ve never actually experienced, and ‘zenosyne’, the sense that time is constantly getting faster. Drawn from creativity and inspired by languages around the world, the Dictionary is a great read to shift your perspective and tap into your most subtle nuanced feelings. Even better, it’s illustrated!
If you like unusual words, beautiful books, and deep feelings, do try this book – if only for that beautiful cover!
America may be a melting pot, but we prize our individuality and differences. These often show up in our language which has been influenced by heritage, location and history. By region, by state and even by city, these quirks and differences are shown off in Speaking American by Josh Katz.
Some of the differences are in pronunciation (for instance, how do you pronounce “caramel” – with 2 syllables or 3? If you’re from the Midwest, you probably use two. Most of the South and New England use three syllables). Other differences are in the actual word we use such as “green onion” vs “scallions”, “yard sale” vs “garage sale” vs “tag sale” (When I first heard Martha Stewart use the term “tag sale” – which is unique to the area around Connecticut – I thought it was something very fancy. I didn’t realize it was a plain old garage sale!)
Some differences are broad – most of the country pronounces aunt as “ant”, but North Dakota, most of Minnesota and New England pronounce it “ahnt” (although I had a third grade teacher that humiliated me in class for saying “ant”. She was not a good teacher.) And some differences are very fine, for instance, most of America calls a sandwich on a long roll a “sub” but from New Jersey thru Maine there are five different names other than sub – “hoagie”, “hero”, “wedge”, “grinder” and “Italian sandwich”.
I found this book utterly fascinating. I’m a born and bred Iowan so I have that Midwestern speech pattern down pat. I lived in Wisconsin for a couple of years, where they made endless fun of my saying “pop” instead of soda (this from people who call drinking fountains “bubblers”!) and I was told I had a Southern accent. Having a sister-in-law from Virginia (where I visit often), I can assure you that my accent it not, by comparison, Southern!
Speaking American is a lot fun with quick, often humorous descriptions and full color maps that show the prevalence of each word or pronunciation. A great peek into what helps make America unique!
The Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe is an unusual book. I have never seen one quite like it. Its full-page diagrams contain details of complex things using only the most common 1000 words (which are listed alphabetically at the back of the book.) Topics range from the human torso (“bags of stuff inside you”), to a helicopter (“sky boat with turning wings”), oil rigs (“stuff in Earth we can burn”), and washing machines (“boxes that make stuff smell better”), to name just a few. It is hilarious and educational at the same time.
Munroe’s elevator is a “lifting room.” He doesn’t neglect to inform that riding one while facing the back wall is likely to make others think you are strange. He still manages to provide a thorough explanation of its mechanical workings.
I suppose some parts of the book could be construed as bringing too much irreverence to what are usually regarded as important and serious topics. For instance, according to Munroe, nuclear bombs are “machines for burning cities.” If you have a certain sense of humor and are even a little bit interested in science, however, you are more likely to find this fresh, almost child-like approach endearing.
The book’s temporary residence on our kitchen table at home sparked some delightful conversations among all ages.
Randall Munroe is the author responsible for the xkcd webcomic.