Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 80: Not Very Cool

"It's incredibly grim!" That's how John Moe, host of Weekend America, describes the origin of the popular expression, drinking the Kool-Aid®.

"It hearkens back to the 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana," Moe explains. "The Reverend Jim Jones of the People's Temple, when his group was under siege and the Feds were knocking at the door, things—as is wont to happen with cults—got out of hand."

Jones concocted a lethal mix of Kool-Aid and potassium cyanide and urged his followers to drink it. In the end, 913 people died in the mass suicide.

"There is some dispute as to whether it was Kool-Aid brand or a knock-off brand called Flavor-Aid, but the expression kind of stuck and that's the one we use today, so off-the-cuff and casually," Moe says.

Despite its grim origins, the colloquialism is not used to describe tragedies—but it's applied in a way that is tied to Jonestown. "It's used in any kind of situation where people are following a cause or charismatic person so completely that they'll do anything for that cause or person," Moe says.

Before his days in public radio, Moe worked at Amazon.com in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Back then, Moe recalls, the phrase drinking the Kool-Aid was used to describe people who were so dedicated to the company that they would work 60-, 70- or 80-hour weeks and would do anything for CEO Jeff Bezos. "I should point out that Jeff Bezos himself was always a little bemused and alarmed by this approach," Moe says. "He would tell people, 'We're trying to build a new company … so if you want to work a 60-hour week, that's great, but don't do it every week. And don't work an 80-hour week. Go home and see your family.'"

Moe says that back in the late 90s and early 00s, the phrase drinking the Kool-Aid was a compliment or something for which to strive—but that nowadays, it's often used as a pejorative. "It's when someone believes in something past the point of reason and logic and health," Moe says. "But sometimes when you're dedicated to a single cause and you're hoping that it's going to be your salvation—whether that be the People's Temple or whether that be Internet profitability for your company or whether that be belief that your baseball team can win the World Series—you're drinking the Kool-Aid."

It's important to point out that Kool-Aid is an internationally known soft-drink mix, now owned by Kraft Foods. Kool-Aid was invented in 1927 in the town of Hastings, Nebraska, by a chemist named Edwin Perkins. In its intended use, Kool-Aid "stirs up" all kinds of positive imagery. "It's something you drank as a kid," Moe says, "so you have this memory of a hot summer day and drinking a big glass of Kool-Aid. It's something you can relate to, and so it has that kind of happy sense-memory to it."

Ultimately, it may be best to avoid using the hackneyed, negative expression. In sharp contrast to the grim connotations associated with the cliché, actual Kool-Aid can be a welcome treat—particularly in a downturned economy.

"It's an inexpensive luxury," Moe says. "It's something the kids can sell on a roadside stand for a nickel a cup on a hot summer day and earn enough to buy a comic book."

Sources: Urban Dictionary: Fularious Street Slang Defined, by Aaron Peckham; and The Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History (Hastings, Neb.).

Music from this episode: "Step Into My Office Baby" by Belle & Sebastian; "Kool Thing" by Sonic Youth.

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