Lexicon Valley

Is It Kosher to “Drink the Kool-Aid”?

Safe to drink?

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Delano Las Vegas

A fuller linguistic arsenal leads to richer, chewier, more diverse expression—but when is the usefulness of a piece of language outweighed by the pain it causes? In “Is That Kosher?” we reflect on certain words or phrases that lie in the margins of acceptability. 

One thing about starting a column on idioms that haunt the P.C. hinterlands is that you learn a lot about idiom origins from colleagues who are more well-informed than you are. Hence this recent exchange on an office chat channel:

Co-worker: Drink the Kool-Aid. Is that kosher?

Me: You’re asking whether Kool-Aid is kosher?

Co-worker: I’m asking if the expression “drink the Kool-Aid” is OK to use.

Me: Why on earth would it not be OK to use?

To drink the Kool-Aid, of course, is to unquestioningly accept someone else’s vision, program, or belief system. If asked to interpret the logic of the phrase, I would have ventured that, as Kool-Aid is sweet and delicious, drinking Kool-Aid moves you to agree with whoever provided it to you.

I was naive. As others have noted, drinking the Kool-Aid actually grew out of a heinous instance of mass murder-suicide in the 1970s, the Jonestown massacre. On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 members of a religious cult led by charismatic madman Jim Jones were enjoined (and in some cases, forced against their will) to down cyanide mixed with grape Flavor-Aid.* Brainwashed mothers syringed poison into the mouths of their babies. Reluctant cult members were dragged out from under their beds. Jones orchestrated the bloodbath in response to a fact-finding mission by Congressman Leo Ryan, who gathered a team of reporters and aides to accompany him to Jones’ compound in Guyana after receiving coded pleas for help from some of Jones’ followers. Shot to death on an airstrip as he attempted to leave, Ryan is the only U.S. representative ever assassinated in the line of duty.

The tragedy at Jonestown planted the seeds of an analogy between blind obedience and drinking Kool-Aid, but it took a decade to grow. (Why Kool-Aid and not Flavor-Aid? People seem to have latched onto the more recognizable brand, perhaps helped along by its previous association with drug use.) Immediately after the massacre, imbibing Nebraska’s official state soft drink just meant going to your death, whether ragefully or in numb compliance. In 1982, AFL-CIO leader Lane Kirkland was the first to invoke Jonestown as metaphor: Ronald Reagan’s economic plan, he warned, “administers Kool-Aid to the poor, the deprived, and the unemployed.” Two years later, a Reagan administration official appropriated the figure for his own ends, advising civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson, Vernon Jordan Jr., and Benjamin Hooks that black Americans “refuse to be led to another political Jonestown. … No more Kool-Aid, Jesse, Vernon, and Ben. We want to be free.”

Only in the ’90s did Kool-Aid begin its transition from simple murder weapon to symbol of cultish complicity. An online dictionary in 1998 defined “drinking the Kool-Aid” as surrendering to enthusiasm: “becoming a firm believer in something; accepting an argument or philosophy whole-heartedly.” In her L.A. Times call-to-arms against the phrase, Meghan Daum cited Bill O’Reilly, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as recent offenders.* “I drank the Kool-Aid as much as anyone about Obama,” Schultz said in an interview, seemingly blaming himself for swallowing an intoxicating myth. And in a tasteless but wonderful feat of alliteration, Us Weekly cautioned that, 72 days into his marriage to Kim, Kris Humphries was “not drinking the Kardashian Kool-Aid.” (A pause to imagine the toxic beverage called “Kardashian Kool-Aid”: foamy, hot pink, smelling of rare massage oils, mascara, and chinchilla fur.)

These days, Kool-Aid guzzlers are more or less ubiquitous, especially at work, where Forbes named “drink the Kool-Aid” the most annoying business cliché of 2012. A flurry of tweets during this year’s State of the Union also compared the president to the Kool-Aid guy—and, by extension, to Jonestown’s creepy soft-drink shiller. (Indeed, some of the power of the formulation must draw on the archetype of the devil tempting poor fools with death-bearing fruit. Obama’s no stranger to those analogies either.) But in context, “drink the Kool-Aid” seems to have lost much of its sense of tragedy. We use it to talk about expectation management, not to impugn horrible motives to whoever is making the promises. Death appears to be off the table as an outcome; the worst case scenario is feeling punch-drunk, loopily optimistic. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid or you’ll wind up married to Kim Kardashian!

None of this has stopped people from calling for the phrase’s abolition. The most impassioned argument to date came in November of 2014, from an Episcopal priest writing in the Washington Post. “Many of us have not forgotten the nightmare of Jonestown. The rest of you need to clean up your language,” pleaded James D. Richardson, who knew several of the victims.

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.   

Verdict: Oh yeahhhhhhh, kosher.

*Correction, Jan. 30, 2015: This post originally misspelled the last name of Howard Schultz and misstated that the Jonestown massacre happened on Feb. 18, 1978. It occurred on Nov. 18, 1978.

*And an update! Thanks to Ben Zimmer, who points out that Allen Ginsberg was quoted saying the following in a speech at Gettysburg College in 1981:

“We are all being put in the place of the citizens of Jonestown, being told by our leaders to drink the Kool Aid of nuclear power.”