Today marks the anniversary of a tragic event that gave birth to the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid.” People use this idiomatic expression today to negatively characterize someone who they feel is blindly and unthinkingly following a person or ideology. As with many idiomatic expressions or dead metaphors (expressions that mean something different from the literal meaning of the individual words), most have forgotten the ghastly historical events that led to the phrase.
On November 18, 1978, 900 members of the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church, formerly located in California, committed mass suicide at their Jonestown settlement in Guyana, South America. Under the direction of their leader Reverend Jim Jones, the congregation, which included 300 children, drank a powdered soft drink laced with cyanide. This tragic display of blind obedience to a cult leader was sparked by the visit of U.S Congressman Leo Ryan who was investigating allegations of human rights abuses at Jonestown. After ordering his gunmen to kill Ryan and a group of journalists who accompanied the congressman on the trip, Jones embarked on his final desperate act, ordering his followers to ingest the poison. Jones, himself, was found dead the next day of a self-inflicted gun shot shot wound.
Usually the exploration of the history or etymology of an idiomatic expression does not yield a specific known origin, much less a specific date as in “drink the Kool-Aid.” Often an idiom’s origin derives from myth, folklore, literature, or legend, and often there are a number of competing stories behind the phrase’s origin. For example, one idiom “the whole nine yards,” has several possible origins according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms:
the amount of cloth required to make a complete suit of clothes; the fully set sails of three-masted ship where each mast carries three yards, that is, spars, to support the sails; or the amount of cement (in cubic yards) contained in a cement mixer . . . . (713).
Today’s Challenge: What’s the Story?
What origins of idiomatic expressions have you heard about, or what origins have you wondered about? The list of expressions below all have their origins in a specific historical time period. Select one, and do some research to find the story behind the idiom. You may not be able to find a specific date, but you should be able to find a general time period from which the expression came. Based on your research, write the story behind the expression as well as a brief explanation of meaning of the expression as it is used today.
cross the Rubicon
jump the shark
push the envelope
a Pyrrhic victory
read the riot act
turn a blind eye
voted off the island
Quotation of the Day: The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. -George Orwell