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The elephant in the room
Aug 22, 2013
Canada was invaded by elephants this summer. Or so it seemed.
Ian Capstick, panelist on Power and Politics (Newsworld), warned of an elephant in the room while discussing climate change, July 24.
Following the deaths of two small children, the Free Press quoted the founder of a support group for sufferers from post-partum depression: “It’s time we talk about the elephant in the room” (July 27).
A letter to Maclean’s (July 29) regarding wind turbines, complained, “Another interview with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and still no addressing the elephant in the room.”
A Globe and Mail letter about today’s housing market said, “The federal government can’t keep ignoring the elephant in the room” (August 7).
What elephant? Which room?
No one can possibly fail to see an elephant in a room, so ignoring such a beast must be a deliberate choice. Therefore, the saying suggests, an obvious problem isn’t being dealt with.
This expression, American in origin, probably arose in the 1950s. Young as it is, it’s already considered a cliché; that is, so over-used its bite is gone. Nigel Reese notes a difference between a cliché and a familiar saying or idiom (Dictionary of Clichés). Still, elephant in the room does seem worn out.
We have other “elephant” sayings, for example, pink elephants. Most sources believe pink elephants in reference to drunken hallucinations were first mentioned in the 1940s. But a 1932 Guy Lombardo song, Pink Elephants on the Ceiling, as well as a 1913 mention of such visions by Jack London, indicate that pink elephants joined us much earlier than 1940.
Yet earlier is elephant’s trunk, which is 1859 Cockney rhyming slang for “drunk.”
It’s been said that when people retire they go to the elephant’s graveyard. Florida? Texas? Arizona? Hawaii? British Columbia?
Supposedly, an elephant never forgets. This idea comes from the folklore belief that elephants remember everyone they’ve ever been in contact with, especially those who’ve mistreated them.
A white elephant is a no-longer-wanted item. This term is from Thailand where white elephants were treated like royalty. Thai kings would give a white elephant to any out-of-favour nobleman. The upkeep of such a beast soon bankrupted the courtier.
In Denmark, the highest order of knighthood is The Order of the Elephant.
An 1874 Harper’s Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast portrayed a donkey clad in lion’s skin terrorizing the other animals. One animal, the elephant, was labelled, “The Republican Vote.” Immediately, the elephant became associated with the U.S. Republican Party.
Our own Pierre Elliott Trudeau linked the elephant to the entire United States, not just to Republicans. In a 1969 speech to the National Press Gallery, he said: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”
Elephants, the largest living land animals, are not native to North America or England. Even so, they seemed to have staked out permanent residence in our speech.
Elephant, from the Latin, elephantem, entered Middle English as olifaunt.