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The Word

Hey, Kool-Aid

A resurgent metaphor of questionable taste

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
March 9, 2008

THAT SLOSHING SOUND isn't just your imagination: If you follow the news, you've probably noticed the rising tide of references to "drinking the Kool-Aid."

There's a lot of Obama-flavored Kool-Aid out there, of course -- according to Clinton partisans. And there's Clinton Kool-Aid, too -- according to Obama voters (and columnist Frank Rich, who recently told New York Times readers that Hillary's strategists, early in the campaign, had been swilling the stuff).

Accusations of Kool-Aid intoxication aren't limited to Democratic campaign rhetoric. Warren Buffett recently said that US banks tripped up by complex investments were now drinking their own "toxic Kool-Aid." Business students, sportswriters, and Nascar fans imbibe as well.

When the Kool-Aid showed up last month in a Globe story about bread-baking rivalries, though, reader Janice Zazinski had had her fill. "I assume it's a reference to the mass suicide in Jonestown, and I find it wholly inappropriate and insensitive," she e-mailed.

She's right about the source. Jim Jones, who forced hundreds of his followers to drink cyanide in Jonestown, Guyana, 30 years ago, left the language this vivid metaphor for blind faith.

Spiked Kool-Aid was already well known, of course. Tom Wolfe had made much of the Merry Pranksters' LSD-laced libation in his 1968 book, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." And the Jonestown brew, some sources say, wasn't really Kool-Aid at all, but a cut-price competitor.

Still, the usage history suggests it was the Jonestown massacre, not the hippie tripping, that launched the metaphor. It's only in the mid-1980s, 20 years after the Pranksters' antics, that "drinking the Kool-Aid" begins to jell. The earliest use I've found is a 1984 quote in The San Diego Union-Tribune, describing a businessman as unwilling to "sip that last drink of Kool-Aid" for a charismatic boss.

If editors objected on grounds of taste, there's little in the record to show it. In 1984, it's true, Time magazine reported that Clarence Pendleton Jr., chairman of the US Civil Rights Commission, offended black Democratic leaders by calling their movement "a political Jonestown" and urging African-Americans to say "No more Kool-Aid."

But as its origin receded into the past, the Kool-Aid metaphor proved irresistible to jargon-slingers in sports, business, and, of course, politics.

Are we more tolerant, these days, of metaphors and jokes ("drink the Kool-Aid" is both) in questionable taste? After the 9/11 attacks, comedy writer Steve O'Donnell told the Los Angeles Times that the lag time between catastrophes and comic responses seemed to be getting shorter. "It took almost 100 years for jokes to emerge about Lincoln's assassination -- as in 'What did you think of the play, Mrs. Lincoln?' -- and less than a decade about John F. Kennedy's death," he said.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who treats taboos in his latest book on language, "The Stuff of Thought," believes that tasteless humor is easier to find these days. The taboo-violators most likely to joke about Biafran famine or Princess Di's death, he notes in an e-mail, are young men. And "with the 1960s decline in deference to authority and convention, adolescent-boy humor is more likely to be aired in public media."

We make distinctions, though, in judging humor. It's more acceptable, says Pinker, to mock the perpetrators of horrors than the victims: Mr. and Mrs. Borden were barely cold in their graves before children were jumping rope to "Lizzie Borden took an ax, And gave her father forty whacks. . ." Nobody minds "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" or "fiddling while Rome burns," metaphors that don't blame the victim.

In the Jonestown case, accurately or not, we think of the suicides as voluntary. That allows us to class them with the Darwin Award recipients, those daring young men (and women) who remove themselves and their self-destructive traits from the gene pool -- unfortunates, that is, who invited their fate.

And if we hear more tasteless humor these days, it may just be because the Internet has made it so accessible. If we could wire up 1865 with today's technology, we might find some good old boys trading jokes about Lincoln's assassination, and hawking T-shirts reading "Where is John Wilkes Booth when you need him?"

Or maybe not. It's hard to predict which horrors will leave a mark on the language. You might think the Heaven's Gate mass suicide in California, 19 years after Jonestown, was equally ripe material. But its signature elements -- the invisible spaceship trailing Comet Hale-Bopp, the black Nikes, the voluntary castration -- failed to add up to a memorable metaphor.

So the Hale-Boppers, despite mentions in pop songs and "The Family Guy," leave no lexical footprints, while the Jonestowners' exit strategy is enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary. There's no logic to linguistic immortality; it's just the way the powdered concentrated fruit drink dissolves.

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas.

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