drink the Kool-Aid

This is a rather common American slang phrase. Those who drink the Kool-Aid exhibit unswerving loyalty to and belief in their leaders. This figurative use has been around since the mid-1980s.

Kool-Aid is a brand name for a soft drink mix that is popular among American children, but the allusion is actually a much grimmer one. In 1978, Jim Jones, the leader of the People’s Temple, a San Francisco cult that had recently moved to the jungles of Guyana, ordered his people to commit suicide. 914 cult members died, including 276 children and Jones himself. Most killed themselves by drinking a grape drink laced with cyanide and sedatives. (It may not have actually been Kool-Aid brand that was used, but as the most popular brand that was the name that stuck in the public consciousness.) Most of those who refused to commit suicide were executed, either shot or killed with lethal injection.

Hence, to drink the Kool-Aid is to show cult-like devotion to one’s leaders.

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drag race

This is a rather etymologically mysterious term to most people today, but an examination of the changes in meaning of drag over the centuries makes it clear why we call racing for fastest acceleration drag racing.

In the 16th century, drag was a term for a sledge, a platform with skids, not wheels, that could be dragged behind a horse or ox. From an act of Elizabeth I of 1576:

Sleades, carres, or drags, furnished for...repairing...high wayes.1

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doh / duh

These two interjections have both been popularized by cartoons.

The first, doh, has been made famous by Homer Simpson, but he was not the first to use it. That honor goes to James Finlayson, who appeared with the comedians Laurel and Hardy in several films. This dialogue is from the 1931 Pardon Us, Laurel and Hardy’s first full-length film:

Professor Finlayson: How many times does three go into nine?
Stan: Three times.
Finlayson: Correct.
Stan: And two left over.
Finlayson (to Ollie): What are you laughing at?
Ollie (snickering): There’s only one left over.
Finlayson: D-ohhhh!1

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Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number thirteen. It began life, and has pretty much remained, a psychological jargon term. Its first appearance in English is in Isador Coriat’s 1911 Abnormal Psychology.

Like many scientific terms, this one is a modern invention based on Greek roots. Triskaideka, or τρεισκαιδεκα, is Greek for thirteen, to which the suffix -phobia, or -φοβία, meaning fear, is added.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

OED June 2008 Update

The online OED has just published another quarterly update, revising the entries from quittal to ramvert. New words added to the dictionary include subprime, adj.; wantaway, adj.; cookie cutter, n. & adj.; and radiophysics, n.1; this last referring to branch of physics dealing with ionizing radiation; the original entry, which is now radiophysics, n.2, refers to the physics of radio waves.

Editor John Simpson comments on the changes here.


This name for the American South first appears in 1859 in the lyrics of a minstrel song. The etymology is uncertain, but it is most likely a reference to the Mason-Dixon Line, the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland delimited by those eponymous surveyors.

The first recorded use of the of Dixie is from the song Johnny Roach, by Daniel D. Emmett, first performed in February 1859:

Gib me de place called Dixie land,
Wid hoe and shubble in my hand.

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Deadline is currently almost exclusively used to mean a time by which a task must be accomplished, but this was not always so. In the past, deadline had a variety of meanings, all related to a boundary for which there was a severe penalty for crossing.

The oldest of these uses dates to the American Civil War and refers to a line drawn around a military prison outside of which a prisoner could be shot, a literal “dead” line. From the Congressional Record of 12 January 1864:

The “dead line,” beyond which the prisoners are not allowed to pass.

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A caucus is a meeting in which leaders and insiders set the agenda and policy of a larger organization or select candidates for office. It also can be used as a verb meaning to meet in a caucus.

The etymology is uncertain and there are several competing hypotheses. It has been claimed to date to before 1736, but the first recorded use of the term is from 1763 in John Adams’s diary:

This day learned that the caucus club meets, at certain times, in the garret of Tom Dawes.

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Brothel derives, through the Middle English broþel, from the Old English bréoðan, meaning ruined or degenerate. It is a variant of the word brethel, meaning a good-for-nothing, a wretch.

The original sense was of a worthless or degenerate person and first appears in William Langland’s Piers Plowman, A text, which was written c.1367-70, with the surviving manuscripts dating to c.1390:

For nou is vche Boye, Bold Broþel, an[d?] oþer, To talken of þe Trinite, to beon holden A syre.
(For now is each boy (commoner), bold brothel, and other, to talk of the Trinity, to be looked upon as a sire.)

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brass tacks

The phrase get down to brass tacks is of uncertain etymology. No one knows why it was originally coined, but there are several explanations. What we do know is that the phrase dates to at least the 1860s and that it is American, possibly Texas to be specific, in origin. Beyond that, there is only speculation.

The earliest known citations are from newspapers, the first being from the Houston, Texas Tri-Weekly Telegraph of 21 January 1863:

When you come down to “brass tacks"—if we may be allowed the expression—everybody is governed by selfishness.1

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