The elephant in the language

Today I want to talk about elephants.

One of the joys of my work as a dictionary editor is finding arbitrary but interesting connections among words, such as those colloquial expressions in English that have to do with elephants.

One elephant you might encounter in English is a white elephant. This is something like a building or a piece of furniture that is big, costly, and seemingly impossible to sell or give away. It can also be a programme or organisation that is a sinkhole for money, meaning that it is expensive and produces little of value. It continues to exist because it is in the favour of some person in power, or else because of inertia.

Related to this is a white elephant sale, which is the kind of event at which you are apt to find things for sale which are perfectly fine – working, clean, and otherwise OK – but yet which are unwanted. Eight-track tape players, maybe. Or a hand-cranked washing machine. Clothing that was fashionable 30 years ago and has yet to come back into style. Art made by the artless and given as gifts to the thankless – or once bought by the tasteless.

Pink elephants are a joking way to describe the hallucinations – strange, imaginary visions and thoughts – you might see if you are excessively drunk or under the influence of drugs. A pink elephant is also used to mean something extraordinary.

Pink elephant is also often used when talking about how hard it is to not think of something once it’s been mentioned. If I tell you: “Don’t think of pink elephants,” what are you going to do? You’re going to think about pink elephants.

The approximate opposite of a pink elephant is the elephant in the room or elephant in the living room. “They ignored the elephant in the room: their daughter still would not speak to them until they agreed to let her go to the beach with her friends.”

This sort of elephant is so big you can’t miss it. Everyone knows it’s there, but nobody mentions it, usually because there seems to be no happy solution to whatever problem that elephant represents.

Elephants are often used metaphorically because of their size. In gold mining and the petroleum business, a piece of land with very large deposits might be called an elephant. Similarly, jumbo, meaning very big, is connected in history to a famous elephant who was considered to be a very large specimen. Since the 1860s, the term has been used for anything that is larger than ordinary.

Indirectly, dumbo, meaning a dumb person, is an elephant-ish term, as it was popularised by the elephant who flew with his ears in the 1941 Disney movie Dumbo. It is probably a play off of jumbo.

One outdated expression that is now little used except by writers who are looking for a bit of historical colour – meaning you’ll probably never hear this expression from the mouth of your average English speaker – is to see the elephant.

This means to become experienced, or to have passed through life or some event (or series of events) and come out on the other side wiser, or to just plain see, hear, feel, and experience everything that an occasion, or life itself, can provide. You might say of a soldier: “You could tell when a soldier had seen the elephant. He had a thousand-yard stare, he could fall asleep at a moment’s notice, and his commanding officer listened to his opinions.”

(A thousand-yard stare is a sharp, unblinking gaze that appears to see nothing at all but at the same time seems to look through you and into your soul.)

By the way, to see the light or to have a come-to-Jesus moment are similar to see the elephant. To see the light means to finally come around to someone else’s point of view. A come-to-Jesus moment is a revelation or sudden overturning of previous attitudes or beliefs. Both of these are still common.

A rare bit of old-fashioned jargon that I picked up from my research is the expression the elephant walks, meaning, “it’s payday”. I found it in a collection of jargon from elevator constructors in the 1930s. I like the expression and use it, but the elephant in my room is that when I do, nobody knows what I’m talking about.

Grant Barrett is cohost of A Way with Words, a nationwide public radio about words and language.

Posted August 13, 2009

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