The Books Briefing: Language Can Build Community—Or Sow Division

Unique ways of communicating help families grow closer; they’re also a powerful tool for cults: Your weekly guide to the best in books

two books
Getty; The Atlantic

In the media reporter Brian Stelter’s book Hoax, he shares an anecdote that neatly sums up so much about Fox News and its influence on how its viewers communicate. A staffer who described a restaurant chain’s decision to offer a vegan burger as an improvement to the menu said they were castigated and corrected: The new option was actually proof of the “war on meat,” a network superior said. Thus, the story was quickly reframed in the channel’s familiar vernacular.

My colleague Megan Garber argued last year that Fox had become a language, one in which a new reality had been manufactured. This dangerous linguistic manipulation extends well beyond TV news. In fact, language is exactly what cults—and cult-like brands—use to lure in new members, the scholar Amanda Montell writes in her book Cultish. Attend any class offered by a popular fitness brand like Peloton, CrossFit, or SoulCycle, and the enticing power of their insider-y mantras becomes apparent. On the HBO docuseries The Vow, which is about the cult NXIVM, viewers see how a strange new way of speaking drew people in.

The dictionary maker Noah Webster warned about the danger of linguistic differentiation, which he believed would sow division, in Dissertations on the English Language. As Fox ruins our ability to talk with one another and cults ensnare vulnerable followers, it’s easy to see what he was worried about. But people will continue to develop unique ways of communicating—and these developments aren’t always harmful. As the professor ​​Cynthia Gordon writes in Making Meanings, Creating Family, family members and friends see their lexicons shift and expand as they spend more time together, incorporating new words derived from inside jokes and other common experiences. These new modes of speech, when shared with loved ones, serve not as means of coercion but as sources of comfort.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

illustration of a pixelated open mouth

AP / The Atlantic

Do you speak Fox?
“Fox has helped to create a nation of people who share everything but the ability to talk with one another.”

illustration depicting cults and cult-like brands

Daniel Mihailescu; Siro Rodenas Cortes; Stefanie Keenan; Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post / Getty

We choose our cults every day
Cultish thoroughly examines the ways that words can be manipulated to build a sense of community, enforce collective values, shut down debate, or even coerce damaging behavior in the name of ideology.”

The former NXIVM members India Oxenberg (left) and Sarah Edmondson

The former NXIVM members India Oxenberg (left) and Sarah Edmondson (Starz / HBO)

How to tell the story of a cult
“If The Vow’s desire is to prove to people watching how enticing the NXIVM community might have seemed, Seduced’s is to expose how disturbing it really was.”

🎥 The Vow, streaming on HBO
🎥 Seduced, streaming on Starz


Library of Congress

The philosophy behind the first American dictionary
“For Webster, new nationhood provided unique opportunities for language reform—opportunities that would fade quickly, he warns, if not grabbed before America’s language, like Britain’s, deteriorated owing to homegrown ‘corruptions’ such as regional dialects, affectation, nostalgia for English manners and customs, class divisions, and innumerable other evils.”

illustration of people inside a speech people

Franziska Barczyk

Why we speak more weirdly at home
“Perhaps you have a nickname from a parent that followed you into adulthood. Maybe you have an old joke or a shared reference to a song. Sometimes known as familects, these invented words, pet names, in-jokes, and personal memes swirl and emerge from the mess of lives spent in close quarters.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s currently reading is The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.

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