Also: Don’t drink the Kool-Aid
Meaning of Idiom ‘Drink the Kool-Aid’
To drink the Kool-Aid means to completely accept a certain belief or philosophy, without question, especially one that is considered bizarre, hateful, untrue, etc.; to become a zealot or a passionate follower of a movement or ideal; to engage in a cult-like mentality or groupthink.
This idiom is almost always pejorative and critical. It is often uttered with portent. Not often is it meant in a positive way.
When someone says ‘don’t drink the Kool-Aid,’ they mean that you should not be taken in by an idea, a fashion, or a person, to the extent that you dedicate your very existence to it.
Examples Of Use
“Trump’s followers drank the Kool-Aid and now it’s too late to stop the fallout.”
“It’s just a conspiracy theory. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”
“You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you. Such a company man!”
“People refuse to take a vaccine but they are willing to take a horse dewormer to self-treat their Covid. Talk about drinking the Kool-Aid!”
This expression, used in the modern sense since the 1980s, has nothing to do with negative attitudes toward Kool-Aid brand flavored drink mixes. Instead, the idiom refers to the tragic Jonestown Massacre, which took place in Guyana in 1978, when 913 men, women, and children, all members of the People’s Temple, consumed drinks poisoned with cyanide.
The cult members were ordered to consume these poisoned drinks by cult leader Rev. Jim Jones. This mass suicide event is now considered a mass murder-suicide or massacre. Some members who refused, including children, were actually forced to drink the poison. Afterward, Jones killed himself with a gunshot to his head.
Although some Kool-Aid was present, it appears that most of the drink mix used was actually a Kool-Aid competitor called Flavor-Aid. However, since Kool-Aid was a household name, and since this competitor was often called Kool-Aid by consumers, the media announced that Kool-Aid had been used and it is this more familiar brand that inevitably became part of the idiom.
Should You Not Say ‘Drink the Kool-Aid?’
It is often claimed that you should not use this idiom because it calls to mind a horrific event and that it unjustly maligns the Kool-Aid brand. While these heartfelt protestations have some basis in logic, they represent a misunderstanding of idiomatic language.
While most native English speakers will automatically understand the metaphor, the majority will not actually know the historical event that led to its use. Such an understanding has never been necessary for the uptake of an idiom into the language and many English idioms have their roots in very negative or even horrific historical events.
As well, while users understand the overall metaphor expressed by the idiom, and some may actually believe that the allusion to Kool-Aid has to do with Kool-Aid being unhealthy or bad in some other way, this does not mean that they are expressing a negative attitude toward the drink mix by using the idiom. That is, the use of the idiom is cognitively separated from any beliefs about its allusion.
Like any other idiom, regardless of its historical roots, allusion, or source, it is now an idiom like any other. By using the idiom, you are not referencing the events at Jonestown directly and it is likely that the expression will survive long after its historical inspirations have faded into memory.
It is also claimed that this idiom should not be used because ‘it is not technically accurate.’ Flavor-Aid, after all, was used instead of Kool-Aid. This, again, comes from a misunderstanding of the evolution of idiomatic language. It simply does not matter whether the idiom refers accurately to any real events.