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Words Aug. 31

by and


“He was pretty much what [former Republican House Speaker] Newt Gingrich wanted. Someone to drink the Kool-Aid and take orders and do whatever is expected. I never knew him to do anything but toe the party line.” – U.S. Rep. Marion Berry (D‑AR), speaking of a former colleague.

What’s wrong with drinking Kool-Aid, especially in a summer like this? I drank plenty growing up and look at me (not too closely). But the phrase drink the Kool-Aid has come to mean “to accept an argument wholeheartedly or blindly” or the milder “to become a firm believer in something.” Its origin is in the Jonestown, Guyana, catastrophe of 1978. Hundreds of members of the Peoples Temple cult committed suicide by drinking a cyanide-laced beverage, allegedly Kool-Aid, provided by their leader, Jim Jones. Some say the drink of choice was actually Flav-R-Aid, which has been described as a British knock-off of Kool-Aid, but it’s Kool-Aid that has entered the language.

The earliest citation for the phrase is from 1987. Coincidentally, it dealt with one Marion Barry, then the mayor of Washington. When Barry failed to appear for a radio talk show, the host said, “But if Marion Barry disrespects us, we will cry out … We will not blindly drink the Kool-Aid any longer.” The host’s remarks were published in the Washington Post.

Congressman Berry is a plainspoken sort. He once called a Republican representative from Texas “a Howdy Doody-looking nimrod.”

“But if they imply that from what I’ve said, I’m not going to argue with them.” Fred Keding writes, “Shouldn’t that be infer?”

I’d say yes, but Random House says that infer and imply have been used interchangeably since the 16th century “by speakers and writers of unquestioned ability and eminence. … ” Still, many 20th-century usage guides insist on a distinction between the two words, RH says, adding “Although the claimed distinction has probably existed chiefly in the pronouncements of usage guides … [it] too has a long history and is widely observed by many speakers and writers.”

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