What Are We Drinking?

Kool-AidI ran across a Facebook thread recently lamenting the insensitivity of the ubiquitous phrase “drink the Kool-Aid.” The argument was that the phrase originated with the Jonestown massacre of November 18, 1978, when the cult leader Jim Jones called on (and in many cases forced) his followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid, resulting in more than 900 deaths in a remote jungle outpost in Guyana. Given its tragic origins, many felt, we should not be using it to describe, say, the followers of Donald Trump or those who slavishly follow fashion. That Forbes named “drink the Kool-Aid” the most annoying business cliché of 2012 suggests how widespread the usage is. Two questions:

a)    Does the phrase originate with the Jonestown tragedy?

b)    Should we avoid it?

Being an oldster, I had always thought the phrase predated Jonestown and began with the LSD parties on the 1960s that were featured in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. At least one contributor to Urban Dictionary agrees with me, defining the phrase as “to make a wholehearted, unconditional commitment (to some group, or idea, or plan) in contrast to choosing an alternative.” That definition also squares with what many in the Jonestown cult were also doing, but I tend to think of dropping acid, especially in 1960s San Francisco, as more benign than swallowing cyanide.

But ours is a minority view. Most publications I checked assigned the origin of “drink the Kool-Aid” to Jonestown. An Ngram search finds one reference to the phrase prior to 1978, but it doesn’t list the source, and a search of published books isn’t likely to turn up a contemporary slang phrase, anyway.

So let’s say I’m wrong, and the phrase originates with Jonestown. Does that make its casual use, as one Facebook commenter put it, “ahistorical … a kind of erasure”? Interviewed in 2011 by The Atlantic, the Jonestown survivor Teri Buford O’Shea responded that the phrase “makes me shudder. I know it’s part of the culture now and I shouldn’t be so sensitive to it. But Jonestown was an important part of American history, and it’s been marginalized.”

Certainly, we can agree that billboards posted by a South Bend, Ind., restaurant that boasted, “We’re like a cult with better Kool-Aid” were rightfully taken down. But Katy Waldman at Slate argues:

But, respectfully, what service does it do to expunge sad or loathsome events from our historical memory? One colleague told me that researching “drank the Kool-Aid” introduced her to the story of Jonestown — arguably a good thing from the perspective of victims and their families. What’s more, invoking a past evil to describe a present one is not necessarily trivializing. And though we do seem to have domesticated this expression, the group of people who suffered directly at the hands of Jim Jones is too small to preclude the use of an evocative and widely understood figure of speech, especially as it accrues new meanings, relevancies, and, um, flavors.

Another Facebook poster wrote, “Language is full of such uses: ‘the rule of thumb’ (which may possibly refer to wife-beating); ‘to meet one’s Waterloo’ (which must refer to at least the death or wounding of 25,000 of Napoleon’s troops).” And both Anne Curzan and I have written on this blog about phrases (“old hat” and “Indian summer”) whose unsavory origins are lost in the mists of time.

Perhaps, then, it’s a question of historical distance. Obviously the cat is out of the bag* in terms of the common usage of “drink the Kool-Aid.” But each of us can make our own decision about whether and how we use popular language. For me, if the phrase began with the tragedy of Jonestown — or if practically everyone thinks it did, which amounts to the same thing — I’d rather not use it. But neither am I prepared to question, say, a close friend’s use of it, as I might if they were to talk about getting “gypped” or “sold down the river.” If my son were to use it — well, as they say, that’s a teachable moment.

*a phrase that, incidentally, originated either with a country-fair trick of trying to substitute a cat for a piglet, or with the torturous whip called the cat o’ nine tails.



Return to Top