Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Phrase Nerd Friday: Drinking the Kool-Aid

“I’m not drinking anymore of Lou’s Kool-Aid.”–Mike Danton

Mike Danton was just a rookie when he uttered this phrase some time in 2002. He had played all of three games or so with the New Jersey Devils, suffered an injury, then refused assignment to the minor leagues, preferring instead to sit around and do nothing. Lou was (still is, in fact) Lou Lamoriello, New Jersey’s General Manager. When Danton uttered this phrase, it was the first time I remember hearing it, but I knew exactly what he meant: he wasn’t going to blindly accept and follow Lou’s word, he was going to think for himself.

Since then I’ve heard “drink the Kool-Aid”–and used it myself–dozens of times, to the point where I’ve practically stopped thinking about it. Recently, someone said it and I thought about it–really thought about it–for the first time in a long time. “Drink the Kool-Aid” has long been in mainstream use, but I wonder how many people now know where it came from. I’m old enough to remember, and I think it’s good to be reminded of it once in a while.

On November 18, 1978, 909 members of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project died in a mass suicide/murder in Jonestown, Guyana. The Peoples Temple was a religious group led by the Reverend Jim Jones, who moved his flock to Guyana in the mid 1970s to form a ‘socialist paradise.’ Whatever the original goals and intentions of the temple, things started to unravel as Jones’ mental health deteriorated. Temple members practiced various scenarios should the CIA or other forces storm the compound, including mass suicide.

With hints of abuse and mistreatment of members filtering out, California Congressman Leo Ryan flew to Jonestown to investigate. Ryan and four members of his party died when they were ambushed at an airstrip while attempting to return to the United States. Later that night, the murder/suicide occurred. Most people willingly drank paper cups filled with powdered drink mix (it was widely reported to be Kool-Aid; however, it may have actually been Flavor Aid, or a mix of the two) and cyanide. Those who could not or would not drink it, such as infants, received it orally via syringe. Others may have received a subcutaneous injection. Jones himself died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Well, that’s a cheerful story for the day, isn’t it? Again, I think it’s good to once in a while think about where these phrases come from. “Jump the shark” is much more cheerful, isn’t it? Have good weekend, all.

10 Responses

  1. Now I'm curious. I should ask my kids if they know what that phrase implies (and why). I don't know when I heard it the first time, but like you, I knew EXACTLY what was meant by it.

  2. I knew where that phrase came from because we watched it play out on the news. So sad! And I had an Army friend who was one of the helicopter pilots who had to search the surrounding area for survivors. Or more bodies. I think of that every time I hear the phrase.

  3. The Jim Jones story is a haunting tale. So sad. Never drink the kool-aid unless your sure it's what you want to drink. And don't hang around (dangerous) crazy people, especially if they scare you. Or maybe that's too late. Anyway enjoy your weekend Jeff.

  4. Yeah, I remember the Jim Jones incident. I always think of that whenever someone says "drink the Kool-Aid." I'm always curious how these idioms begin. I have a book around here somewhere that explains the origins of a lot of older sayings.

  5. Stacy–good question to ask. Let me know what they say.

    Donna–that's a gruesome job to have to do.

    Sheena-kay–it is, and as I looked back into it while putting this piece together, I found out more details that I'm not sure I wanted to know.

    L.G.–I admit, at this point, Jonestown isn't the first thing that pops into my mind when I hear the phrase, but it's never far from the surface. And every once in a while, I really *do* think about it.

    A nicer, less gruesome way to say the same thing might be to develop a phrase from The Matrix: take the blue pill. The blue pill being the one that Neo could have taken to remain asleep.

  6. I had wondered where that phrase came from too. It's not something that's said in Britain, but I've heard it a lot via American culture. I'd heard of the Jonestown massacre, but hadn't linked the two. Quite an innocuous phrase for such a haunting origin.

  7. Since I'm way old, I remember the Jonestown tragedy very well, and I know what people mean if they say "Don't drink the Kool-Aid." It's awful there are people who don't know what it was. (Ignorance is doom.) I've never heard of the New Jersey Devils though, so that's a new one. Hockey team or baseball? Basketball? Soccer? Curling? lol

  8. Nick–indeed, it is. Yet, when I think about it, its origin gives a little more power to the phrase.

    Lexa–New Jersey Devils are a professional hockey team. And Mike Danton is an interesting, and maybe tragic, individual. Maybe I'll write about it here soon.

  9. Jeff – I asked my kids if they'd heard the phrase. Both had. They also both knew what it meant for the most part (i.e. don't follow blindly). But when I asked if they knew how the phrase came to be, my son (who is 32) had a vague idea (about a cult, but nothing specific) and my daughter (who is 29) had absolutely NO IDEA it was based on anything. Well, they both know now. 🙂

  10. Well, it DID happen before your daughter was even born, so it's understandable. I wonder how many people will hear curious phrases like this and try to find their origin. Thanks for the update!

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