Monday, January 11, 2010

Plain English: Drinking the Kool-Aid, Jumping Shark, and Nuking the Fridge

Politicians are “jumping the shark” and “nuking the fridge” while voters “drink the Kool-Aid.” If you are puzzled at some of the modern idioms political analysts are tossing off these days, you are not alone. I used “drank the Kool-Aid” myself recently while discussing an issue with someone who had no idea what I meant. No one – not sociologists, psychologists, or linguists – knows how and why certain pop culture words and images take hold of the American psyche and bore their way into everyday speech. Here are the stories of three expressions that have captured the American imagination.

Drink the Kool-Aid. In the late 1970s a religious cult leader named Jim Jones convinced his 1100 followers to move to Guyana. In 1978 Jones convinced his flock to commit mass suicide by drinking grape Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. In blind obedience to their leader, 913 followers drank the Kool-Aid and died. The Jonestown Massacre was recorded on a surveillance camera inside the compound. Today the expression “drink the Kool-Aid” means to go along with the crowd or to wholeheartedly embrace a philosophy or point of view without question. If people become true believers and totally buy into an idea without thinking it through for themselves, we say they “drank the Kool-Aid.”

Jumping the Shark. On September 20, 1977, the first of a three-part episode of the TV series Happy Days aired. The plot involved Fonzie (Henry Winkler) and a daredevil feat. Fonzie claimed he could perform a water ski jump over a penned-in shark. The plot was considered far-fetched, outrageous, and inconsistent with the high standards of the award-winning sitcom. Happy Days lost credibility with viewers who felt that the three episodes devoted to jumping the shark were ridiculous and an insult to their intelligence. The episode became synonymous with high quality (Happy Days) corrupted by mediocrity. In current usage “jumping the shark” means something that was once great has gone downhill in quality and is in decline. Some “jumping the shark” moments include Tom Cruise hopping up and down on Oprah’s couch, Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment on the aircraft carrier. Recent speeches on economic recovery by government officials and politicians sound like “jumping the shark” with their proposals to solve the current economic crisis.

Nuking the Fridge. Similar to “jumping the shark,” this expression refers to a scene in the movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull released on May 22, 2008. Indiana Jones tries to survive a blast from a nuclear weapon by squeezing inside a refrigerator lined with lead. When the explosion occurs, every building and object in the scene is obliterated while the fridge is hurled through the sky, and finally hits the ground hard from a great height. Jones emerges from the fridge unharmed. Fan reaction ranged from “C’mon -- you’ve got to be kidding,” to “How dumb do you think we are?” to “That’s ridiculous, man.” Current usage of “nuking the fridge” translates to “an impossible assertion or proposed solution.” “Nuking the Fridge” has shown up recently in Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal referring to economic bailout/rescue plans.

These colorful expressions may seem trivial in the face of overwhelming national problems. Their very existence, however, is evidence that everyday speech is a powerful weapon. To say our leaders have “failed us” doesn’t feel nearly as good as saying they have all been “jumping the shark” and “nuking the fridge.” This time the American public is refusing to “drink the Kool-Aid.”

Image copyright 1988 Kraft Foods Inc


Mary Jane McKinney is the creator and owner of LLC, publisher of grammar, style, and proofreading exercises that use sentences from literature. She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. LLC, P.O. Box 299, Christoval, TX 76935,, 325-896-2479,

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