An Elephant of a Different Color
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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