January 20 2008

Origin of a phrase

Wake up!  Don\'t drink the Kool-Aid!While listening to The History Channel today as I wrote, a documentary about Jonestown came on that got me to thinking about how words and phrases work their way into our vernacular.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Jim Jones and Jonestown, it would take forever to explain the finer details, but essentially it was a religious cult that set itself up a small town in northwestern Guyana. When the town came under investigation for various crimes, and was visited by United States Congressman Leo Ryan, several cult members decided to leave with the politician, setting Jim Jones into a rage. He ordered the Congressman’s plane attacked, and fearing retribution for their acts, he ordered the entire cult to commit suicide. Those that did not commit suicide of their own accord were killed by the devout followers.

The means by which everyone died is where this plays into my thoughts on language. A large vat of Kool-Aid was mixed up and laced with cyanide. The followers were then told to “drink the Kool-Aid”, those that did not do so voluntarily were injected with it.

At some point, this incident turned to the sayings of “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” when you think someone is being blinded by someone or something, or “They’ve taken a drink from the Kool-Aid” if you think they’ve already been sucked in. Of course there are numerous variations of both, but you get the general idea.

So, I’m curious as to how this became such a part of the American lexicon when I highly doubt many people realize its origins. True, it is very fitting in some situations, but how many people realize they are referencing an instance of mass murder when they use it? Do people not care? Do they not know the origins? Do they not care? And don’t get me wrong, I’ve been known to use it, and I did know the reference long before today, but it is the best analogy at times.

What do you think? How did it get so ingrained? Do you know other odd instances? What do you think of this particular one?

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General Writing


  • The funny bit is that they drank the Flavor Aid (which was correctly stated in the Jim Jones Wikipedia article) I also think that “White Night” should have entered the lexicon for 'suicide drill'. Personally, I'd give the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test props to the Merry Pranksters … and puzzle how it ever became enshrined into corpspeak.

    '"drink the Kool-Aid," corporate-speak for immersing oneself in a cultlike culture.'

  • Contrary Jack

    Which reminds me:

    You know why there are no jokes about Jonestown?

    The punchline would be too long.

    (Bad folklorist! Bad, bad folklorist!)

  • Jack – Ouch… just… ouch.

  • Grasshopper

    Jack…disturbingly funny.

    Lexicon is a strange thing. I’m personally bothered by the incorporation, and glamorization, of “pimping”. Pimp this. Pimp that. Pimp my ride. And on and on. There is nothing pretty about the reality of prostitution and being pimped. And yet, it’s a word used everywhere these days in a complimentary manner. Gross.

    I’m not so bothered by the Don’t Drink the Kool Aid references. But, I do cringe a little bit when people use the word ‘postal’ as a reference for going crazy – or the more modern version: “pulling a Klebold”, a reference to the Columbine shootings. I’m tellin ya, our country is going to heck.