Friday, May 16, 2008

On ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’

One of my longtime commenters, Matt Norwood, mentioned something curious in the Jim Jones thread.

He’s convinced that the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” originated not with Jonestown... but with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters in the 1960s.

Matt says there’s an “edit war” raging on Wikipedia over this matter.

I was gonna let Matt’s comment slide, even though it riled me up. I mean, damn... it’s so fricking obvious by the way people use the term, it’s a reference to the Jonestown Massacre.

Then a British website linked to my Jim Jones post. And a commenter there wrote that “the cliche itself – Drink the Kool Aid – predates Jonestown by about twelve years, and refers to the use of LSD – a psychoactive drug – forty years ago as chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Acid Kool Aid Test.”

Enough of this bullshit! Let me prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that “drink the Kool-Aid” became an American colloquialism only after the mass suicides at Jonestown.

Just check the archives of the New York Times, America’s newspaper of record.

The first appearance in the New York Times of the phrase “drank the Kool-Aid” was on January 20, 1989.

It was uttered by Jack Solerwitz, a lawyer who’d represented striking air traffic controllers (and was ruined professionally as a result). “I was the only lawyer who kept the doors open for them,” Solerwitz told the Times, “and I thought I’d get a medal for it. Instead, I was the one who drank the Kool-Aid.”

“Drank the Kool-Aid” didn’t turn up again in the New York Times till 10 years later. But since 1999, it has appeared more than a dozen times.

Variations of this phrase became popular after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. Consider the first appearance of “drinking the Kool-Aid” in the Times... in an op-ed column by tech journalist Rodes Fishburne:

“The saying around San Francisco Web shops these days, as companies run out of money, is ‘Just keep drinking the Kool-Aid,’ a tasteless reference to the Jonestown massacre. For some, there isn’t much Kool-Aid left.”

That was published in April of 2000. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” had never appeared in the New York Times before that.

As for plain old “drink the Kool-Aid,” that first appeared in the Times in January of 1997. Business executive Richard D. Parsons (pictured), a former friend to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, said this about Giuliani’s staff:

“The Mayor doesn’t necessarily surround himself with the creme de la creme. They’re well-meaning, but I’m not sure terribly long on judgment. It’s kind of like if the Mayor says, ‘Hey, let’s all drink the Kool-Aid,’ they all go ‘bottoms up.’ ”

So then... that settles it, right?

Right.

12 comments:

Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

It would help their argument if they got the name of Wolfe's book right (Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, not Electric Acid Kool Aid Test). I was alive for both Kesey and Jonestown. In fact, Wolfe's book was a favorite of our crowd in high school in the late 60s, to such an extent that we gave each other nicknames from the characters in the book. None of us ever used the phrase "drink the Kool-Aid" in the manner discussed here. It's a Jonestown riff.

Avedon said...

Ah, thank you. The phrase doesn't make a lick of sense as a reference to Kesey - and no, I never heard anyone refer to "drinking the Kool-Aid" that way in all the years of hanging around with drug-addlled musicians etc., either. If there's one thing you couldn't expect from tripping, it was that you could get everyone on the same page in a massive group-think. Tripping tends to atomize people off into their own little worlds.

However, we prefer not to think of The Sideshow as "a British site". I'm just, y'know, a bit farther out from the Beltway then I used to be when I lived in walking distance of it.

Malcolm said...

Of course you are right: the phrase “drink the Kool Aid” is a reference to the Jonestown event, where everyone lined up to drink the poison Kool Aid. (I remember the event, everyone was talking about the Kool Aid.)

Just as the phrase “Jump the shark” refers to the episode of Happy Days where Fonzie actually jumped a shark (on water-skis with his leather jacket on)

I’ll go one further…. I suggest that in 20 or 30 years, people will argue that the “911” people dial in an emergency was actually chosen to pay homage to the 9/11 attacks.

You’d be surprised how history can get mucked up in a short period of time. Then again, maybe you wouldn’t.

Undercover Black Man said...

Just as the phrase “Jump the shark” refers to the episode of Happy Days where Fonzie actually jumped a shark (on water-skis with his leather jacket on)

Is that one in dispute? I remember it vividly.

Matt Norwood said...

I stand corrected. The citations you dug up make it pretty clear that the phrase was first used to refer to mass suicide, not some other form of affirming group identity.

Still, I can't help but feel that much of these days I feel the phrase being used in a more general sense of "doing something dumb to convince the rest of the gang that I'm committed". I'm not convinced that the Kesey stuff doesn't color the way the phrase is perceived. But you're obviously right that the phrase has its origins at Jonestown, not with Kesey.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ It's all good, Matt. I'm more passionate than I should be about colloquialisms.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Avedon, welcome. And thanks for the original linkage.

By the way... did you used to write for the Diamondback? Did we know each other?

Brooklynite said...

As long as we're clearing up misconceptions, we might as well note that nobody drank the Kool-Aid at Jonestown, because there was no Kool-Aid at Jonestown.

They drank Flavor Aid. It was less expensive.

Thembi said...

What? You mean this phrase didn't originate with JJ from Good Times?

May I note that in my nerdiness, I have heard a few people assume that the phrase "three sheets to the wind", meaning drunk, orginated through some sexual escapades. It's really a sailing reference.

DeAngelo Starnes said...

No, it doesn't settle it. There's no telling where the origin of saying came from. That's the beauty of it.

And fuck the New York Times as the paper of record. Same paper that helped build the drumbeat to this asinine Iraq Invasion. Use the Times as the standard and we'd still be looking for WMDs.

DeAngelo Starnes said...

No, it doesn't settle it. There's no telling where the origin of saying came from. That's the beauty of it.

And fuck the New York Times as the paper of record. Same paper that helped build the drumbeat to this asinine Iraq Invasion. Use the Times as the standard and we'd still be looking for WMDs.

Undercover Black Man said...

What? You mean this phrase didn't originate with JJ from Good Times?

Now that's funny!