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Beautiful People: Amanda Montell, Pop Linguist and Author

By Alyssa Shapiro

Amanda Montell is a pop linguist and a writer who lives in Los Angeles, and if her name looks familiar, staff jobs at Byrdie and WhoWhatWear (where she has profiled talent including Olivia Munn and Chloë Grace Moretz) might have helped. Written or verbal, “words,” Montell tells us, “are everything.” So it’s no wonder that after a lifetime of interest in the function of language and the sound of words themselves, she got to writing about words more deeply, diving into sociolinguistics and why we speak and use language the way we do. “I grew up enchanted by language: how speaking in a certain dialect or foreign language could entirely change the way people see you,” she writes in her debut book, Wordslut.

For Wordslut, Montell covered sociolinguistics and the evolution of language as it relates to feminism, and for her work, snagged an endorsement from award-winning director and writer Jill Soloway, who contributed a gushing blurb for the cover: “I get so jazzed about the future of feminism knowing that Amanda Montell’s brilliance is rising up and about to explode worldwide.” Factor in that Montell is a youthful 27 years old, and the whole deal becomes even more impressive. She is effervescent, lively, personable, and brilliant, and equally as engaging in writing.  

 

Alyssa Shapiro: To you, what does it mean to live beautifully?

Amanda Montell: I have thought a lot about this actually this year, what it means to live beautifully: I find that it means to live generously. Not necessarily like you’re always donating your money somewhere, but at every turn to sort of give of yourself. Even if you find your friend is having a shitty day, to Venmo them $15.00 and just be like, buy yourself a drink or like if your partner comes over and is having a hard time, just to give them back scratches. Just to give of yourself.

 

Alyssa: What do you do when taking time for yourself? 

Amanda: I've recently started audio journaling. I can't bring myself to write at the end of a long day when I've spent the whole day writing. I use this app called Maslo which was invented by someone I went on a Hinge date with, and he told me about it, and we did not go on anymore Hinge dates, but I do use his app. You basically record a minute at a time, just talking about your day, and it generates a word cloud which shows you patterns about the topics you are talking about the most, and the feelings that are brought up the most. 

Alyssa: What are you reading right now? 

Amanda: Right now I'm reading Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney, this brilliant Irish novelist who is, like, my age. Some publication called her the JD Salinger of the Snapchat generation which I think is so funny, it's such an arbitrary pairing, like, Oh I’m the Joan Didion of the Grubhub generation. What does that even mean? But she’s fantastic, and I'm loving it.

I do a lot of saving of posts via Instagram poets, and there's this IG poet Nayyirah Waheed, she has this poem that goes, 

“I want to live so densely. lush. and slow in the next few years, that a year becomes ten years, and my past becomes only a page in the book of my life.”

...and like, dude, that's what it is to live beautifully. I change my fucking answer. 

I feel like 2018 was the longest year of my life and in the best way, I just felt like I was sucking the marrow out of every day of that year. I had just gone through a breakup, I had just finished writing the first draft of my book, there was a lot of change and transition happening and I was taking it all in, and having so much appreciation for what I was learning and experiencing during that time and the feeling of not future tripping. I just want to not worry about what's going to happen in a year or even next week—of course it’s important to set goals and deadlines and meet those things, but I want to live densely so lush and so slow that an hour becomes a year. 

 

Alyssa: When do you feel most like yourself?

Amanda: When I'm on an airplane or when I’m en route somewhere. It’s when I’m sitting in a café in a city that is not my own, and people-watching and writing. That's when everything is right in the world, and I'm right. 

Alyssa: Is it because it allows you to be who you are, not who you’re “supposed” to be, because you’re not around anyone you know, who knows “you”?

Amanda: Yes.  I'm a performative person, and it's totally authentic, I like to be on, but it is exhausting to be on. And it's not like I'm cracking jokes—I'm not that funny—but I do like to be a good party guest. I am an extrovert and I do feed off others’ energy but, yeah, totally.

I took six months off of my full time job to work on my book, to create most of my first draft, and I spent one month of that in a town called San Marino. It’s a politically independent state in Italy, like Monaco or the Vatican, it’s like a state within a country. I came to know everybody in the tiny city center and I was totally an unknown traveler in January from Los Angeles writing a book, and people were kind of fascinated by me and would just randomly give me gifts and this lady from a shoe shop just gave me shoes, and I love that. 

Alyssa: What objects in your home are most important to you?

Amanda: I have books everywhere. My grandfather, my mom’s dad, my Paw Paw, who was my closest family member to me, was just this incredibly effervescent and vibrant person who I aspire to be like. He was a scientist and an actor, and he died this year. He’s why I do anything in life that could be seen as generous: he was generous. When he died, I took some things from his home and I found this old passport for him and his wife, my grandmother, when they would do couple’s passports in 1970! Emmett Johnson and Mary Lynn Johnson, they were good folks. Papa: that’s what you call your grandfather when you’re from New Orleans. 

I love the way books are objects, and the packaging of my book was so important. I love yellow book covers, I feel so akin to them.

Alyssa: What are there ways you find yourself taking an active part our generation and culture, even beyond your book?

Amanda: Consciousness is really important. I don't preach any dogma about veganism, feminism, all these -isms. I think they have fluid definitions, and you have to customize each to your own moral compass. But there are certain cultural issues that are really important to me, like the environment. I donate monthly to Heal the Bay and the Sea Turtle Foundation. I identify as 80%/20% vegan, and I write about that a lot for my day job, where I try to make it as accessible as I can make it. I really do want more people to come around to it for the environmental impact and for animal rights. I think if even 5% of the American population was 80% vegan, that would make such a positive impact on the environment. Everyone’s like, no plastic straws—that's important, but it's so much bigger than that! 

Social justice and equality are important to me too, and my book is called Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language, which is pretty revolutionary in terms of the semantics of that. Empowering people’s ethics through knowledge and education and empirical studies is really important to me, and really helpful, so the book basically takes a shitload of academic studies that are pretty dry and inaccessible and makes them digestible and fun for a general reader. It's about bringing this information to people’s consciousness and then allowing them to make their own informed decisions. 

 

Alyssa: Can you give me an example of a time someone told you you couldn't do something, and you proved them wrong?

Amanda: Oh my god, that happens to me constantly, and I love it. I've chosen to take day jobs at creative corporate offices and work in digital media. It’s empowered my literary writing. The two kind of exist in the same universe, and that’s been great for me... but I don't suit an office environment. I've definitely had female bosses who I think like me, and kind of see a younger self in me, who’ve tried to shape me or reel me in because they think this personality of mine is not going to work. This foul mouth, this opinionated vibe, this goofball is not going to fly. 

You know, I’ve literally had more than one boss tell me to have more poise, and I appreciate that, like you obviously can’t be like bounding around a corporate office saying “fuck,” every two seconds, although I do… but it’s like, that part of my personality is why this book happened! Like, I have a book called Wordslut! If I wasn't like this, my book wouldn't have happened! 

I'm open to feedback about my personality and I do take my work very professionally, but it’s also important to be vigilant about what feedback you want to apply. And I don't want to have more poise

Alyssa: What are some of your favorite words?

Amanda: Can I get something really quick? This is a book called Lost in Translation, and it’s an illustrated book of all the untranslatable to English words around the world. My favorite foreign [untranslatable] world is “tartle,” the Scottish word for when you go to introduce someone to someone else but at that moment realize you've forgotten their name. Happens to the best of us. 

There's an Arabic word, “Ya'aburnee,” and it means “you bury me,” literally, but the meaning is a beautiful declaration of wanting to die before another person as it would be too painful to live without them.

Alyssa: Do you believe the words we speak have power?

Amanda: The words we speak absolutely have power. Language can be used as a power tool, a weapon. People don't take it as seriously; there’s that idiom, “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me,” but that’s not true! People can be seriously oppressed with language, or seriously lifted up. Empowering, validating, naming an experience, that’s key to understanding it. Our words are everything. They are my entire life. 

Alyssa: How does it feel to have your first book published? 

Amanda: It feels like silly; this was supposed to take way longer. Deciding for real that I wanted to pursue this difficult career, I was like, I’m in it for the long haul, if this takes until I’m 50 years old to get a book deal, I will be that squeaking wheel, just persevering... and it happened faster than I anticipated, and I’m not mad about it! I'm just, like, bewildered. I cannot believe it, it’s not real to me, it’s wild. Right now it just feels like, “Who gave me a book deal? Like, that’s just absurd.” That’s how it feels.

Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language is out now from Harper Collins.

Directed and photographed by Alex Kenealy