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.

The association of Kool-Aid with cult-like devotion and mass suicide quickly entered the public consciousness after the Jonestown massacre. There is this literal use from the Washington Post of 14 January 1979:

No doubt about it, if he had ordered the SS to pass around the Kool-Aid, all those crewcut Nazis would have tossed it back with the same fervor with which they cheered Hess’ ravings.

The metaphorical use appears a few years later. Again from the Washington Post, 23 September 1985:

What he didn’t want, Foley was telling Joyce Aboussie, Gephardt’s campaign manager, was “what I call the politics of Jim Jones, you know, that ‘let’s drink the Kool-Aid’ kind of downer.”

And yet again from the Washington Post, two years later on 17 July 1987:

You don’t follow anyone blindly, my brothers and sisters...We love Marion Barry. He is the mayor...But if Marion Barry disrespects us, we will cry out...We will not blindly drink the Kool-Aid any longer.

(Sources: ADS-L; Proquest Historical Newspapers)

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