7 Expressions and Ideas About Elephants

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The elephant, thanks to its majestic size and unusual features, has inspired an assortment of metaphors and other verbal associations.

“The elephant in the room,” for example, refers to an obvious issue that observers go out of their way to ignore. A more complicated connotation is that of a white elephant, an undesirable possession often donated alongside other like items at a fund-raising white-elephant sale on the assumption that someone else will find value in it.

This usage is a dilution of the original meaning, based on the custom among the kings of Siam of offering a rare white elephant to noblemen who had fallen out of favor. The unfortunate recipient would then soon be financially ruined by the cost of maintaining such a beast. From this connotation arose the usage of “white elephant” to refer to a massively expensive, wasteful construction project.

A pink elephant, on the other hand, is supposedly the likely hallucination of a drunk person. “Seeing the elephant,” by contrast, alludes to the onetime novelty of the animal, when people would travel far to view one in a circus parade or under the big top itself; thus, any overwhelming experience could be compared to this memorable observation.

Then there’s the elephant test, which refers to the idea that an elephant is difficult to describe, but one knows it when one sees it. And sight, or the lack of it, is integral to a story told of six blind men who gave conflicting descriptions of an elephant because though each was giving an opportunity to touch one, they felt different parts: the trunk, a tusk, an ear, a leg, the stomach, and the tail.

There’s also the concept of an elephant in Cairo, based on the idea of an algorithm computer programmers would develop to describe how to hunt elephants in Africa, involving a methodical sweep of the entire continent from south to north. This analog for creating a search algorithm refers to the placement of an elephant in the city in the far northeast corner of Africa to provide a termination point for the search process in case an elephant is not otherwise discovered.

Two other associations of elephants are their well-documented superior intelligence and memory, and their fallacious fear of mice, perhaps based on observations in zoos and circuses of elephants, which have poor eyesight, unnerved by the scurrying of rodents.

Finally, the origin of the adjective jumbo is an elephant of that name owned and exhibited by master showman P. T. Barnum. His hyperbolic advertisements of the elephant’s size led to the adoption of the animal’s name as a synonym for colossal. (Elephantine, by the way, is another synonym, though it also refers to ponderousness.)

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3 thoughts on “7 Expressions and Ideas About Elephants”

  1. Remember that there was (is?) a whole genre of elephant jokes, long before the term “meme” was popularised. There is quite a long Wikipedia page devoted to them (but I can’t post the link).

  2. And weren’t they beasts of burden, so to speak, used for transportation in places like India and Africa?

    Also, how did the elephant become the symbol of the Republican party?

  3. And there is one other thing elephants can do. My elephant story is on MemoirsInk.com. “The Circus Inside Me”. Although I will never go to another circus that has animals, this was a great memory of when I used to.

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