I don’t think you know what that means…

I know I’ve posted in the past about people here using terms that are English without really getting the spirit of what they actually mean (see the post of “pimping your wife”, ick).  But this post is more about a generational gap.  I was listening to a song the other day sung by Kesha.  I am certain this girl is barely in her twenties (I checked it out, she’s 24).  In her song, she uses the phrase, well established as part of the American vernacular, “Drink the Kool-Aid.”  Here are the lyrics for this first section of the song…

Back door cracked we don’t need a key
We get in for free, no VIP sleaze
Drink that Kool-Aid follow my lead
Now you’re one of us, you’re comin with me
It’s time to kill the lights and shut the DJ down (this place about to)
Tonight were taking over, no one’s getting out (this place about to)

Recently I came across a program on one of the Showtime Channels called “Witness to Jonestown.”  They have a series of these (very interesting, I highly recommend them).  Watching it was an interesting exercise for me.

(** Note: For those twenty-somethings reading the blog who are now wondering about this seeming non sequitur, it’ll become clear in a minute.)

When the events at Jonestown Guyana occurred, I was 7 years old.  I remember this coming on the news.  I remember the horror.   I remember the way the whole country was almost stunned at what occurred.  I was seven and I remember Jonestown.

But these 20-somethings who sing songs, weren’t a speck in mom and dad’s eyes in 1978.  I was barely on the planet.  So, somehow I fear that this phrase, which has become so ingrained in American speech, has lost its original meaning.  In 1977, Jim Jones, a messianic American leader moved much of his flock to the People’s Temple Agricultural Project (known as Jonestown) in Guyana.  In 1978, he led (some say forced many) 909 of his followers to commit mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid (or a knock-off thereof).  Many charge that these people were brainwashed.  Some may have been injected with the poison.  I know that I don’t know exactly what happened there.  But here’s what I DO know, drinking the Kool-Aid wasn’t something to be used lightly.

When you first heard it being integrated into our vernacular, it meant become a mindless or brainwashed drone.  It was used in a very derogatory way about people who seemed to have ceded all of their thinking to someone else and who seemed willing to do whatever that someone told them to do.  In that sense, the meaning held true to the original.  In the song, though, I don’t think Kesha is using it in the same way.  Unless she’s suggesting they’re going to bomb the club (and I don’t think she is), the Drink the Kool-Aid reference to going to a club seems really odd.

So, it’s interesting to see how the original meaning is lost as terms go through generations.  I have a feeling that 100 years from now, people will be doing research on how the phrase “Drink the Kool-Aid” (when they likely do’t have Kool-Aid anymore) came to mean go along with something.  We do that now with phrases we’ve used forever that have no inherent meaning.  I wonder what it will come to mean to them in the future.  After all, in just 30 years, the term has mutated into a milder, less vitriolic form.  What is it’s future?  Interesting to think about how language evolves with use by those who didn’t live through events that spawn new terms…

Happy Word-olution!


7 thoughts on “I don’t think you know what that means…

  1. It has an alternative meaning which immediately came to mind for me – Acid use. I looked it up in Wikipedia, and this is what it says:

    “The expression has also been used to refer to the activities of the Merry Pranksters, a group of people associated with novelist Ken Kesey who, in the early 1960s, traveled around the United States and held events called “Acid Tests”, where LSD-laced Kool-Aid was passed out to the public (LSD was legal in the U.S. until 1966). Those who drank the “Kool-Aid” passed the “Acid Test”. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” in that context meant taking LSD. These events were described in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 classic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. However, the expression is never used figuratively in the book, only literally.”

    Either usage is disturbing – she is either advocating suicide or drug use. *sigh*

    But talk about people with song lyrics they don’t understand, my son’s class did a musical performance to “Barbie Girl” by Aqua. Good grief, I almost died – a bunch of 1st graders singing “You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere?” What were the teachers thinking? Actually, they just didn’t get it, plain and simple (which then made me question the English language education of the staff of the school, but that’s another story…)

    • I had no idea there was another use of the term. Thanks for the education! See the LSD drug-culture of the 1960s is before MY time… ;). And I agree both usages are disturbing.

      As for your son’s school… allow me to say, sigh. And yes I do worry about their understanding of the language. The least they could have done is used Mattel’s version which removed the objectionable for kids phrasing (you can see it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwu6NrxVVFk).

  2. An alternative LSD or Lake Shore Drive. A song by Aliotta, Haynes & Jeremiah that celebrates that famous lakefront highway in the city of Chicago from 1971. Now that’s real music.

  3. I didn’t know that was how they were poisoned (Yes, I’m a 20 something woman). I thought she was also referring to the drug LSD. I hear so many words being thrown around by the girls I work with…It’s hard to keep up sometimes!

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