Always an elephant nearby

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The CV Branch doesn’t believe that everything should always be about business. But, in homage to my love of languages, I still want to discuss a language of sorts. So here are a few predicaments that elephants find themselves in in English…

I love the way that we use objects/animals to describe human situations, albeit a little euphemistically perhaps.

Do you know all the sayings that have to do with elephants? Have a look.


1.  In the room

When the elephant is in the room, we avoid talking about something that is uncomfortable.

We only know that the expression, if not the precise wording, was first used in the States. And the meaning, as we understand it, dates from the 1950s. One of the first references to the elephant being in the room was in the Charleston Gazette in July 1952:

‘Chicago, that’s an old Indian word meaning get that elephant out of your room.’

It’s now considered a cliché, so try not to use it too often.


2.  Pink

If she has changed her colour to pink, you may not want to be compared to the elephant…

‘Seeing pink elephants’ means that you may be slightly (well, quite) inebriated and having some delicious hallucinations. Elephants have been able to turn pink since the early 1900s. In Jack London’s 1913 autobiographical novel, John Barleycorn, the alcoholic John said that he saw ‘blue mice and pink elephants’.

If you've never seen an elephant ski, you've never been on acid.’ – Eddie Izzard

But if you only ‘see the elephant’, presumably in its natural state, you’re having a tremendous experience.


3.  Cairo

 On a trip to Cairo, the elephant refers to data which is inserted at the end of a search space (computer programming). The data is supposed to terminate search algorithms when it matches the criteria of the search. Byte magazine published an article in September 1989 which explained how elephants would be hunted by different professions. I won’t elaborate on this simply because I don’t understand it and I’m not at all keen on allegories referring to elephants being harmed.


4.  White

Poor thing, when she is white, her owners don’t want her; she has become a burden and too troublesome. They are likely to donate her to some charitable sale, hoping that someone else would want her.

But, if someone presents you with a white elephant, they don’t particularly like you. So said the kings of Siam; they hoped to cause the recipient financial destruction.

The first time that we encounter this euphemism, in English, is in 1892 in G. E. Jewsbury’s Letters:

His services are like so many white elephants, of which nobody can make use, and yet that drain one's gratitude, if indeed one does not feel bankrupt.


5.  Jumbo

And then the elephant turned up at P. T. Barnum’s circus, poor darling! He advertised its size and now it’s a synonym for ‘colossal/massive/enormous’.


6.  Intelligent but fearful

 Aristotle called elephants ‘the beast which passeth all others in wit and mind.’ They are regarded as one of the most intelligent creatures on earth with the biggest brains. Elephants can also experience emotion; watch them mourn a departed friend.

One can only marvel at the fact that elephants are afraid of mice. This was supposedly observed in circuses and zoos (neither of which I support). Elephants have poor eyesight and they were easily unsettled by rodents underfoot, or under paw.



An African Proverb says that ‘Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumia’, meaning that when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

‘I have a memory like an elephant. In fact, elephants often consult me.’ – Noël Coward

Of the power of love Samuel Richardson said that, ‘Love will draw an elephant through a key-hole.’

And on saving the environment: ‘The elephant can survive only if forests survive.’ – Mark Shand


Let me know what you think of elephants and if you’re so inclined, here is a South African elephant charity:

But, this missive won’t be complete unless you see them in their natural habitat. Enjoy!



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