This article is a preview from the Summer 2019 edition of New Humanist

cult 17th century, from Latin “cultus” (culture, worship, reverence)

One way to suggest an organisation is suspect is to say it is a “cult”. But a “cult classic”, when describing a movie, is almost celebratory. The Illustrated London News was using that phrase in the late 70s, while people in the 60s were calling James Joyce’s Ulysses a “cult book”.

“Personality cult” is more sinister-sounding. For people who lived through the Cold War, the phrase recalls descriptions of ex-leaders in the Soviet Union or China, but the first listing in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from much earlier – 1898 in the New York Times, as applied to the German people’s enthusiasm for Kaiser Wilhelm II. “Cultish” is an even more direct attack on groups of people and it was used at least as early as 1959, when the Guardian wrote of “criticisms of the cultishness of the psychoanalytic movement”.

“Cult” is an adaptation of anthropologists’ use, and before that, of people describing groups of Christian believers. In 1781, the worship of Priapus was described as a “cult” and since then the adoration of Aphrodite, the Virgin Mary, neolithic skulls or many more have been described as “cults”. The suggestion that the word signifies sinister organisations seems to have begun in the 1870s with talk of the cult of “Buffaloism” being a “secret community with strange and weird vows”.

“Cultus” in Latin had a wide range of meanings including worship, cultivation, education and loyalty. It became “culte” in French to describe homage to a saint. It doesn’t seem to have come into English with the Normans, though, as it’s not spotted until 1613 when talking of adoration in religion as a “divine cult”.

All this helps create a potent jibe in modern politics. This four-letter word floats on a cloud of suggestions incorporating Neolithic fetishes, Stalin, the Virgin Mary and the fan-worship of Rudolf Valentino. It enables the user of the word to suggest helpless obsessives, gripped by someone beyond their control.