Jargon Genesis: Drinking the Kool-Aid

I have to wonder if the users of this cliché are aware of its morbid origins! Although we might innocuously state, “People are drinking the Kool-Aid from our last campaign, and sales are up,” the phrase in its original context is certainly not innocuous.

In 1978, Jonestown, Guyana, Peoples Temple cult leader Jim Jones utilized this cheery, child’s drink as a tool for mass suicide. Approximately 900 people died that day, under Jones’ direction, primarily by consuming Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. Now, in defense of the Kool-Aid brand, there is reasonable evidence that the drink might have actually been Flavor Aid, and survivors, witnesses, and investigators were using Kool-Aid in its generic sense (as one would Kleenex or Velcro). This could launch us into a discussion on the advantages or disadvantages of genericized trademarks, but that will have to wait for another time. So when did the phrase jump to the popular culture?

In 1987, we have record of an early figurative use of “drinking the Kool-Aid.” When Cathy Hughes, a morning talk show host, was stood up by Mayor Marion Barry, she angrily stated, “If Marion Barry disrespects us, we will cry out…We will not blindly drink the Kool-Aid any longer.”

Since that time, the use of the phrase has become increasingly widespread and, it seems, less attached to its origin. I apologize to those of you who previously enjoyed using this phrase and to all of you who will now cringe when you hear it casually spoken in conversation! I, for one, have now eradicated that phrase from my vocabulary, having have seen pictures of the tragedy in Jonestown, 1978.