An Elephant of a Different Color

By Maeve Maddox

The word elephant is one of my favorites. I love the magnificent creature to which it refers, and it’s fun to say.

English has several metaphorical expressions that refer to elephants.

pink elephants: hallucinations supposedly experienced by those who have drunk to excess

white elephant: a possession of little use that is costly to maintain; property that is difficult to sell

The expression is usually explained by citing a king of Siam who used to make a present of a white elephant to courtiers whom he wished to ruin. White elephants were considered sacred, so they couldn’t be put to work, and they were costly to care for. The term is used in the real estate industry to refer to overpriced properties belonging to celebrities: “what in the industry are called ‘white elephants’–properties that are rare, large, expensive and hard to move.”

white elephant sale: a rummage sale

A rummage sale provides the opportunity to get rid of useless objects by selling them to others who must then take care of them.

rogue elephant: a vicious dangerous elephant that lives apart from the herd.

The term “rogue elephant” is not metaphorical, but one use of the word “rogue” derives from it.

In the essay “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell explains the difference between a rogue elephant and a tame bull elephant experiencing “must.” (Musth or must is a periodic condition in bull elephants characterized by highly aggressive behavior.) The tame elephant will be violent for a time, but then return to a docile state.

During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, a campaign aide described Sarah Palin as “going rogue”; Palin later used the expression as a book title.

to see the elephant: to go on an adventure; to gain experience of life

Young men leaving home to seek wealth in the California gold fields said they were “going to see the elephant.” When their dreams didn’t pan out, and they returned home empty-handed, they said they’d “seen the elephant.” The expression probably originated from much earlier times when elephants were an extremely rare sight, and people who wanted to see one had to undertake an arduous, adventurous journey.

the elephant in the room: a serious topic that everyone is aware of, but which no one wishes to talk about openly

According to the Ngram Viewer, “elephant in the room” was in use as early as 1859, but its climb to its present popularity began in the 1980s. So ubiquitous has it become, speakers are running variations on it, talking about the “big elephant in the room,” the “ginormous elephant in the room,” the “pink elephant in the room,” the “white elephant in the room,” and even the “blue elephant in the room.”

Sometimes the variations are meant to be clever, like calling a pink mansion difficult to sell, a “pink elephant,” or calling the problem of pornography and cursing a “blue elephant,” because cursing is said to “turn the air blue.”

Sometimes the variations seem the result of mere confusion. For example, the adjective pink is added so often as to suggest that the association of “pink elephants” with delirium tremens has been forgotten. For example,

Actually, if your organization is currently going through a change, employees and customers are probably talking about it as you read this. So it would be best if you addressed that “pink elephant” in the room and nip that “water cooler” talk in the bud as soon as possible!

While it might be the pink elephant in the room, it is important to point out the increased likelihood, or at least temptation, of corruption when the teacher is administering both the pretest and post-test. (This is from an article that suggests that teachers may be cheating when administering standardized tests.)

The meaning of “the elephant in the room” seems to be slipping away.

At a writing conference, I heard an author refer to Amazon.com as “the elephant in the room,” not in the sense of something not to be talked about, but as “the largest presence” in publishing.

The once vivid expression “the elephant in the room” has become so clichéd that writers who can’t come up with a new metaphor to express the idea would do better to say, “the problem no one wants to acknowledge.”

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8 Responses to “An Elephant of a Different Color”

  • thebluebird11

    Regarding the pink elephant (especially in the quote about the company undergoing restructuring, which is just a euphemism for slashing staff with layoffs), maybe the idea of pink was related to pink slips, the term for your walking papers when let go from a job.
    And, not that these are metaphorical, but if anyone remembers elephant bells, bellbottom pants with HUGE bells. Also elephant ears (the pastries). Mmm!

  • Dale A. Wood

    From the title of this one, I thought that you were going to write about the misuse of similies and metaphors (all too common!).

    “A horse of a different color” makes sense, but “An elephant of a different color” does not, just as “A gorilla of a different color does not.”

    Nowadays, so many people do not know the meanings of various similies and metaphors, and they do not understand Aesop’s fables, either. Nor do they know anything about the sayings of Confucius.
    We used to make jokes about those by twisting them, such as:

    “Man who lives in glass house gets dressed in basement!” and
    “Man who lives in glass house hang a lot of curtains!”
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    At a writing conference, I heard an author refer to Amazon.com as “the elephant in the room,” not in the sense of something not to be talked about, but as “the largest presence” in publishing.

    That seems to happen a lot. People who don’t really understand an idiom or a metaphor, start using it anyway—incorrectly—and it just gets accepted, although it shouldn’t be by guardians of the language. I too, have specifically been annoyed by, “the white elephant in the room”, through a local tv commercial. Others that pop to mind include, “the bigger they are, the more pride makes them fall”, “I got that monkey skin off my back”, but that’s, “no skin off my brow”, and, “it was a sight to be told”. I understand that people misunderstand or mishear things, but not why the erroneous and often nonsensical versions seem to win out so often. “V is for winning!” “You are a sore sight for the eyes” (that’s a compliment). Many, like white elephant in the room, seem to result from confusion of 2 different legitimate metaphors. There is the gorilla, or 800-pound gorilla in the room.

    “A horse of a different color” makes sense, but “An elephant of a different color” does not, just as “A gorilla of a different color does not.”

    Why does it make sense for horse but not the others? The horse version is idiomatic, granted, and the others aren’t; but it makes no more sense than the other ones.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Venqax, you have difficulty understanding simple statements like “A horse of a different color makes sense.”
    You asked “Why does it make sense for horse but not the others?”

    “Horse of a different color” makes sense because this is a phrase that has been in use for centuries, and people understand what it means.
    On the other hand, something like “A bear of a different color” or “A giraffe of a different color” would just puzzle people because they have never heard them before and they don’t know what they mean. In fact, they don’t mean anything.

    “Makes sense” is short for “we can understand that in detail because we know about it already.” It is not a case of trying to figure it out logically because there isn’t any logic to them.
    “A horse of a different color” is an idiom.
    D.A.w.

  • Katherine Macedon

    The phrase “the 800-pound gorilla in the room” means the important matter that no one is willing to discuss. I’ve never heard the “elephant in the room” used to mean that, but poor diction abounds. Let’s not forget the current ubiquitous misuse of “begs the question” to mean “calls to mind the question” or “leads to the question,” when “begging the question” is a logical fallacy wherein a person assumes that which he wishes to prove.

    Also, the reason that “a horse of another color” works is that horses come in quite a few colors, while the other animals mentioned do not.

  • venqax

    Venqax, you have difficulty understanding simple statements like “A horse of a different color” makes sense…makes sense because this is a phrase that has been in use for centuries.

    DAW, why is it that so many things you post remind me of the student who wrote, “I have very good knowledge grammarically speaking.” ?

    It is you who has trouble either reading, comprehending, or both. I clearly said, “The horse version is idiomatic, granted, and the others aren’t”. To which you replied, “’A horse of a different color’ is an idiom.” Thank you for the reinforcement, but it hardly qualifies as enlightening. Katherine Macedon answered the question. Something doesn’t make sense because of its age, it gains a definition, but that is all. We all know what it means. The question was whence comes that idiom, because it makes no more sense than others would. Katherine Macedon answered the question, and I’ll respond to that.

  • venqax

    Katherine Macedon:

    the elephant in the room: a serious topic that everyone is aware of, but which no one wishes to talk about openly

    I have to agree with Maeve that the elephant in the room has been used to mean the above—and the same thing the 800-pound gorilla means—for a very, very long time and would add it was probably used long before the gorilla came along. I’m very surprised you’ve never heard it used like that. As MM said, it’s become so common that people are messing with it and deploying incorrectly.

    Your explanation of horse/color makes sense provided that it just applies to the actual examples given—gorilla or elephant—and provided that the fact horses come in a variety of colors is relevant to the metaphor. I’m not sure that it is given its meaning of “something completely different or separate from something else” (e.g. apples and oranges). I agree 1000 percent about begs the question. I don’t think I have ever heard or read it used correctly.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Venqax, you have difficulty understanding simple statements like “A horse of a different color” makes sense…makes sense because this is a phrase that has been in use for centuries.

    Venqax, you always dream up something else to gripe about – rather than EVER admitting that you were wrong or mistaken. Griping your way is no way to make friends and influence people….

    You didn’t understand what the phrase “makes sense” means, yet you are completely unwilling to admit that, and then to say “Thank you, I have learned something new today.”
    In contrast, this is one of my favorite phrases in conversation: “Thank you, I have learned something new today.”

    Once again: “A horse of a different color” makes sense — because this is a phrase that has been in use for centuries.

    D.A.W.

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