To drink the Kool-Aid is to become a firm believer in something or a passionate follower of a philosophy or movement. The expression is usually pejorative, implying that the Kool-Aid drinker is blindly following something that doesn’t merit such devotion. It also may suggest the drinker has forgone individuality and slipped into groupthink. But it is occasionally used positively.
The expression is a reference to the 1978 event at Jonestown, Guyana, where hundreds of members of the Peoples Temple, a Californian cult, committed suicide by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.1 (Actually, they drank a different brand of sugary, fruit-flavored drink, but we call it Kool-Aid anyway.) So the metaphor isn’t strictly logical as it’s used today. We use it as if the members of the Peoples Temple drank Kool-Aid when joining the cult, when in fact the phrase logically should mean something like to participate in mass self-sacrifice at the behest of a leader.
The phrase has had its current sense since at least the late 1990s,2 and historical Google searches show its use has been steady since that time. Today it is as prevalent as ever. A Google News search covering the first three months of 2012 reveals 179 instances of the phrase (and this doesn’t count variations that are difficult to search for).
Drink the Kool-Aid seems to fill a gap in the language, and many people find it useful. It’s so common it has become a cliche, though, and it probably won’t age well as its referent grows more distant.
Well, a party chief is supposed to drink the Kool-Aid – and urge others to drink it. [New York Daily News (2002)]
To their everlasting credit, no one on the Patriots has even sipped the Kool-aid this week when it comes to the media’s dynasty fascination. [Sports Illustrated (2004)]
If you’re like most of the public, you’ve swallowed the Kool-Aid that the existing energy regime is giving you. [Energy and Capital (2007)]
But in the UK, the Times showed yesterday morning that it too has now drunk the Kool-Aid over the Middle East. [Daily Mail (2011)]
Then of course the crash ensued and all of us who drank the Kool-Aid got burned. [International Business Times (2012)]
1. “drink the Kool-Aid” at Word Spy ↩
2. Drinking the Kool-Aid: The Cultural Transformation of a Tragedy by Rebecca Moore ↩
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