The elephant in the room displaces the gorilla

The elephant in the room displaces the gorilla January 11, 2013

(The following started out as the introduction to today’s Left Behind post, then it kind of got away from me a bit, so I’m breaking it off here as it’s own post.)

I haven’t researched this carefully, but the elephant seems to be winning.

The idiom of choice — or cliché, if you want to be critical about it — for people refusing to acknowledge an urgent problem that ought to be their priority used to be “the 800-pound gorilla in the room.” (The weight of the gorilla varied, but it was usually a gorilla.) In recent years, though, the idiom seems to be shifting as the gorilla has gotten some competition from the elephant in the room.

Either one works. Both images convey the absurdity of trying to go about one’s business while ignoring something that it seems impossible to ignore. I’m not sure what, if anything, the shift from a large gorilla to an even-larger elephant signifies. I suspect the elephant may have wandered in from the folk-tale about the blind men, which has a somewhat similar point about the obliviousness of a limited perspective. Or maybe it has to do with Republicans. In any case, though, the elephant seems to be steadily replacing the gorilla.

This is Dulary. I met her once and got to feed her a box of apples (including the box — elephants need their fiber).

This is probably a good thing. It’s a useful idiom, and freshening it up a bit may be helpful, so let’s not stop with the elephant. Let’s keep freshening it up — the velociraptor in the room, the exploding dirigible in the room (too soon?), or the Arrakian Sandworm in the room.

Whatever the form, the delightful thing about this image is not just the incongruous, intrusive presence of the elephant, but the idea of the people in the room blithely going about their usual business as best they can while refusing to acknowledge the rather emphatic presence of the misplaced pachyderm.

The idiom is popular because it exaggerates a real human tendency we can all recognize, and because it doesn’t exaggerate it all that much.

Yes, elephants are enormous, spectacular creatures and we’re all quite certain that the sudden presence of such a glorious creature in our own living rooms, or our own yards, or even our own neighborhoods would instantly rearrange all of our priorities and rewrite all of our schedules until it was dealt with. And that’s certainly true.

But social pressure is also a powerful thing. As certain as I am that I would snap to attention at the presence of an elephant (or gorilla) in my room, where I set the tone, I’m less confident of how I would respond in the unlikely circumstance the idiom describes — if I walked into a room for some gathering and encountered both a literal elephant and a literal group of people who neither mentioned nor acknowledged its presence.

One doesn’t want to seem rude, after all. Or stupid.

Surely the others are aware of the elephant, I’d be thinking, so there can’t be any need to point it out. I wouldn’t want to be Captain Obvious. I might ask what it was doing there, or how it got there, or what they intended to do about it, but the sheer enormity of the beast would make that an awkward question. I would probably have the sneaking suspicion that I already ought to know the answer. If I’m shocked and flabbergasted by something that everyone else seems to find utterly unremarkable, I start to suspect that they must all know something I don’t — something I ought to know and, therefore, maybe shouldn’t admit to having missed. I start to think maybe it’s better not to say anything, just quietly try to bring myself up to speed before everyone realizes I missed the memo about the elephant.

In real life, actually, I’ve had the chance to meet several elephants up close. And every time I’ve been allowed anywhere near an elephant, I’ve involuntarily cried out, “Whoa! An elephant!” and had a minor manic episode of unsuppressed, hyper-verbal glee. Because, you know, elephant.

Still, though, that social pressure I describe above can be almost as enormous, tangible and intimidating as any elephant. If there are enough other people around and they are all uniformly steadfast and confident in their disregard, their implacability and their nonchalance, then whatever regard and, um, placability and chalance I might be otherwise feeling tends to get squelched — even if it was initially of elephantine proportions.

If my initial squeals of delight were shrugged off with something cryptically dismissive — “Oh, yes, that. Been meaning to call someone. How’re things at home?” — then I can imagine myself submitting to the prevailing mood and settling into an awkward, baffled silence.

I can even imagine the arrival of another friend who would walk into the room, her eyes widening in wonder at the sight. And then I’d shoot her a silent warning look — Don’t say anything about the elephant!

I’m not proud to be able to imagine such a scenario.

It’s embarrassing to admit that I could be so weak as to allow social pressure to make me play along with the sort of absurdly massive denial it would take to keep silent about something so huge and urgent.

But I sometimes find myself doing exactly that with regard to poverty, homelessness, war, Christian patriarchy, white privilege and climate change, so I can’t be sure I wouldn’t do the same thing if faced with a literal elephant in a literal room.

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  • Next on Slacktivist:
    The “The ‘The elephant in the room displaces the gorilla’ post displaces the Friday NRA post” post.

    Also, chipping in here, I’ve always understood the elephant in the room and the 800-lb. gorilla to be two distinct & unrelated cliches.

  • Oh, well, hey.

  • I’ve more frequently heard the 800-lb (or some other weight) gorilla used to describe someone who gets a lot of leeway – or the complete run of the place – either out of respect or fear.

    As in, “You can’t tell him what to do; he’s the 800-lb gorilla.  He does what he wants.”

    EDIT: Or What FangsFirst linked to while I was typing this.

    (Wasn’t Dennis Miller listed as the “800-lb Gorilla” on Dennis Miller Live during the end credits?)

    However, I have heard it used in the manner Fred mentions as an alternative to the elephant in the room, though probably most often without any particular weight specified.

    In an early-season episode of Family Guy they did a gag featuring a “Giant squid in the room” in which Peter and Lois pretend not to notice that it’s there.

    I believe the 800-lb gorilla has appeared – albeit briefly, as a background character in a crowd scene or something – in an issue or two of Fables.

  • ohiolibrarian

    People used to reference “The Emperor’s New Clothes” for unwiilingness to defy the public misperception in favor of obvious reality. Now it’s elephants and gorillas. Don’t people know the story anymore?

  • I also have never heard the 800-lb gorilla as the thing that is politely ignored; it’s the thing that does whatever the heck it wants, and the elephant is the ignored thing.  I was raised in the US South, if that matters.  

    About five years ago, I discovered (in the wake of a family member’s death) that the Spouse’s family had been keeping at least two particularly nasty secrets from me, at least one of which could in fact have put, if not myself, then other members of my own family in physical danger, and that everyone in the Spouse’s family knew about it except for the Spouse and myself – and that they were all engaged in an informal conspiracy to keep the Spouse from ever knowing, of which I was merely collateral damage.  When I tried to explain this to friends outside of the gigantic morass of lies of omission, the elephant in the living room collided with the skeleton in the closet, and the entire matter has been the Pachydermatic Zombie ever since.

  • banancat

     That kinda sounds like a Gamma World campaign, where each person has a character die at least once on the quest and a new one appears from Behind That Rock and learns about the quest from the surviving member(s).  But the result is that when they finally bring the MacGuffin back to the quest-giver for a reward, it’s a completely different group than the one that started.

  • Jeremy Hurwitz

    Agreed that it’s a conflation of idioms. Wikipedia defines the “800lb gorilla” as 

    “800 pound gorilla” is an American English expression for a person or organization so powerful that it can act without regard to the rights of others or the law.

  • Mary

    Hummm…the gorilla SOUNDS more dangerous, but ignoring the elephant leads to a whole lot of sh** to be shoveled out!

  • Mary

    It still kind of fits in with the AA concept of the elephant..someone who can get away with anything because of their addiction.

  • The_Amazing_Kim

    I’ve only heard Americans say 800lb gorilla (and have never heard the metric equivalent gorilla); I’m much more familiar with elephants in rooms. Maybe it’s some weird British/American phrase hybridisation going on?

  •  Well, obviously to the british, it’d be a sixty stone gorilla.

  • vsm

    I recently saw a production of the Cherry Orchard where the set included a dead elephant lying under an enormous sheet. Not very subtle, but it worked well.

  • Lorehead

    I always heard it as “Where does an 800-pound gorilla sit?  Wherever it wants.”  So, to me, an 800-pound gorilla isn’t a problem that nobody ever mentions, but a troublemaker who’s too big to restrain.  Very different.

    As for the origins of the phrase, maybe Mark Twain’s short story, “The Stolen White Elephant,” which he wrote in 1882?  That has detectives looking for an elephant, who turns out to have been in their own bedroom without their ever noticing.  The quote from 1959 that usually gets cited as the first printed source of the expression gives it a very different connotation: “a problem about equal to having an elephant in the living room. It’s so big you just can’t ignore it.”

    So I’m not sure when it mutated to a problem that everyone sees, but it would be impolite to acknowledge.  In fact, it seems to be drifting back to its earlier sense, of a problem that’s too big to solve.

  • Lorehead

    You still hear, “The Emperor has no clothes!” sometimes, but usually that specifically means that someone is overrated, and not that there’s a big problem nobody is talking about.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    No gorillas in Australia.

    I have occasionally heard the mixed metaphor of “the white elephant in the room” :)

  • Ethics Gradient

     And the mention of Douglas Adams brings up the question of whether someone has been erecting Somebody Else’s Problem fields on all these gorillas, elephants, naked emperors and supposedly invisible dragons.

  • christopher_y
  • I think one of the rooms in the Ankh-Morpork Bureau of Standards is devoted to this very purpose.

  • Taneli Huuskonen

    In Finland, we speak about the hippopotamus in the living room and an elephant in a china shop.  Besides, the person who decides to mention the hippo lifts the cat onto the table.

  • ohiolibrarian

     Odd, considering that being overrated isn’t the point of the story at all. The point is that from the Emperor on down people are so afraid of appearing foolish that they become fools.

    BTW, doesn’t anyone else remember a series of commercials featuring a large gorilla complaining about being ignored. I remember one took place in an elevator and another in a sports car. They were for some kind of financial services related to retirement planning, I think.

  • vsm

    I think the logic is that everyone secretly realizes the overrated work is terrible, but is afraid of admitting it.

  •  Realistically, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone use “The emperor has no clothes” when they didn’t mean “The fact that my position is unpopular means that it is right and I am brave. Deep down you all know I am right and don’t have the courage to stand with me.”

  • Lorehead

    We have a bull in the china shop and a cat that’s out of the bag.  If there was originally some joke either was referring to, it’s been long forgotten.

  • Lorehead

    Yeah, I was thinking the same thing: using that line means you’re casting yourself as the hero of the story.  Bringing up the elephant in the room is less arrogant.

  • Lorehead

    Well, Mark Twain’s short story was “The Stolen White Elephant,” although it turned out to have been in the basement where all the detectives who’d been looking for it slept.

  • Lorehead

    Wikipedia says (I haven’t gone and looked it up elsewhere, so caveat emptor) that the invisible dragon in the garage was originally an invisible elephant in the room: Wittgenstein and Russell argued a century ago about whether they could prove one did not exist.

  • The most memorable use of Elephant in the Room to me was from one of my first attempts to read one of… I think, Behe’s, awful Intelligent Design books, in which he tries to use a lot of metaphors to bewilder and confuse. 

    The Elephant in the Room is used, as far I can tell, to argue that scientists shouldn’t bother with trying to find alternate explanations for anything, ever, and just go with the first most obvious explanation they can see and say that God Did It. 

  • The worst I ever saw was this guy who went on to say that he was like the child who said that the emperor had no clothes “And now everyone is praising the boy and telling him how good and smart he is while they wail and beat themselves over how stupid they are.” He went on at some length about how beloved the boy was and how terrible all the other people felt.

    Of course, not a single person anywhere in the world was agreeing with him. And this wasn’t even a “My opinion is better than yours” thing — he was actually making a claim of fact that could be verified independently. (Worse, the specific person he said was involved specifically disclaimed that he would or had done the specific thing, and this guy took that as proof positive that he was right because “Obviously he was lying”)

  • As several people have noted, the metaphorical 800 pound gorilla does not need to be in a room.  

    The 800 pound gorilla (a thing you do not want to tangle with) and the elephant in the room (the obvious thing which you have to work very hard not to notice) are two distinct metaphors, and it is only relatively recently that people have started conflating them.  

  • Tricksterson

    I say we merge the two into an elerilla.  For Science!

  • Mike Timonin

    The joke that comes to my mind is this one:

    At a school for the kids of diplomats, the child of the American ambassador, the British ambassador, the French ambassador, and the Canadian ambassador are in a class together. Their teacher asks them to write an essay on elephants. The American kid writes an essay on “The Role of Elephants in the Barnum and Bailey Circus.” The British kid writes about “The Role of Elephants in the Expansion of the British Empire in India.” The French kid writes about “The Love Life of the Asian Elephant.” The Canadian kid writes an essay on “Elephants: A Federal or a Provincial Problem?”

  • BaseDeltaZero

    The point is that from the Emperor on down people are so afraid of appearing foolish that they become fools.

    I was under the impression that it was more that people were so afraid of *offending the Emperor* that they said nothing.  Since he was the Emperor and all…

  • Chris

    In the ~25 years I can remember, the animal in the middle of the room that no one talks about has always been an elephant.  The 800-pound gorilla has been the one who sits wherever he wants to.

  • The 800 pound gorilla (a thing you do not want to tangle with) and the
    elephant in the room (the obvious thing which you have to work very hard
    not to notice) are two distinct metaphors, and it is only relatively
    recently that people have started conflating them.

    Same here.

  • smrnda

    Thought I would add this – the phrase the ‘elephant in the living room’ was coined by a British journalist about the collective denial of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. You can learn this from the film “Elephant” which was, incidentally, made about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Just thought I’d share the historical factoid. 

  • Rick McClinton

    I had always been sure that the elephant in the room was from the koan.
    Or possibly the modern version. (pp.591-592 reference)

  •  Provincial. Although, as it turns out from the Ikea Monkey case, Ontario has some gaps in its exotic animal legislation, which have to be filled in by municipal law.

  • By the way, the Google Ngram viewer (which lets you search its print corpus for phrases) seems to show “elephant in the room” predating “gorilla in the room”:

  • Mike Timonin

    Provincial. Although, as it turns out from the Ikea Monkey case, Ontario has some gaps in its exotic animal legislation, which have to be filled in by municipal law.

    See, only a fellow Canadian would reply in this way…

  • You can’t blame a body for missing the elephant in the room. Sometimes an elephant can be very hard to find. For instance,

    Q: how do you know when there’s an elephant in your refrigerator?
    A: You notice its toe-prints is the butter.

    Q: how do you know when there’s an elephant under your bed?
    A: Your nose touches the ceiling.

    And so on.

  • dubdub

    I think that this was excellently written and that the last paragraph perfectly pulled everything written in this article together with many of the things of actual consequence occurring in this world