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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  • fraser

    I’ve heard that an 800 pound gorilla can sleep anywhere it wants, but never heard of it as “the 800 pound gorilla in the room.” Didn’t know there were variations on elephants.
    Of course, there’s also the “invisible gorilla” test–where people not only don’t mention seeing a gorilla (man in an ape suit) in a video they’re watching, they don’t even notice it.

  • MaryKaye

    There is a story–I don’t know if it’s true–that a chimpanzee researcher would suspend a bunch of bananas from the ceiling and put a stepladder beneath, but if any of the chimps got onto the ladder they would all be sprayed with a hose, which they hated.  So they learned not to do that, and in fact would jump on any member of the troupe who went near the ladder.

    The researcher then started to rotate chimpanzees out of the group.  The new chimps never actually got sprayed with the hose, because the previous chimps wouldn’t let them near the ladder.  The researchers kept rotating until no chimps were left who had ever been sprayed.  Still, the chimps would beat up anyone who went near the ladder.  We have to presume, given the lack of language skills, that they had no idea why.  It’s just What You Do.

    I have seen the same behavior in human groups from time to time.  I think it’s related to your elephant.

  • DonBoy2

    I totally agree, and hate it when people get it “wrong” by my understanding.

  • PurpleAardvaark

    The part about being too polite to mention the elephant reminded me of the Bill Cosby routine that featured having a pet rhinoceros and people commenting about it as in:
    “Oh you have a rhinoceros. We used to have a rhinoceros.”

  • walden

    never heard of the gorilla in the room. 

    Did hear a lot about the “gorilla in the closet”, which was usually used as a metaphor for enforcement by some third party in a dispute between two parties  (For example, if a state was trying to obtain compliance from a company, the possibility that a federal agency might step in if the state failed was characterized as the “gorilla in the closet.”)  This is completely unlike “ignoring the elephant in the room” — because it expressly acknowledged the relevance of the metaphorical [powerful animal].   Gorilla in the closet may have gone away in recent years because the “in the closet” terminology become much more associated with an entirely different subject….

  • Long ago, Solomon Asch did a famous set of conformity experiments on more or less this theme, though he used line segments instead of elephants or gorillas.

    One of my favorite facts about that study is that, while a subject’s chance of quietly going along with a popular wrong answer increases (unsurprisingly) with the number of people giving that wrong answer,  that effect is rapidly neutralized by even one other person in the room not going along.

    What makes it a favorite of mine is that this works even if the other dissenter is equally wrong. That is: if the answer is obviously A, and 20 out of 20 people say “B”, I will probably say “B.” But if 19 people say “B” and 1 person says “C” I will probably say “A”.

    Which is to say: even if I’m wrong, just by saying my unconventional wrong answer out loud I can make it possible for someone much cleverer than I, whom I don’t even know, to give the right answer.

    I think that’s glorious.

  • histrogeek

     This reminds me of a joke among my fellow photo captions. We find an appropriate image for the textbook or ed website that has something irrelevant or odd in it. Sometimes it’s something extreme (a Thai Buddhist monastery with tigers in it), sometimes it’s ordinary (a historical figure posing with their child). Then we would write captions that didn’t mention it. We would then protest if someone brought it, “Tiger, what tiger?”or “Baby? There’s a baby there?”
    We never did see if someone who wasn’t in on the joke would call us on it though.

  • 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.

    If an Arrakian Sandworm could even fit in a room, I could only assume that someone was deliberately keeping it trapped in there to drown it later.  

    Only way to get fresh Water of Life, after all.  

  • Bificommander

    Back at university, I think it was a class on communication of scientific results, I saw a documentary of an experiment on peer pressure. A test subject was shown to a room with other supposed test subjects, who were all in on the experiment. They were supposedly all there to fill in a lengthy questionnaire for the experiment, and they weren’t supposed to chat with each other while doing it.

    After a couple of minutes, a smoke machine would start blowing smoke under one of the doors, followed by the sound of a fire alarm. All the fake test subjects who knew about it would remain seated, wouldn’t acknowledge the sound or the smoke and just keep filling in their forms. The real subjects (there were multiple tests, there was never more than one real subject in the room at the time) would notice the alarm and smoke, look around, see no reaction, and in the end none of them left before the 20 minute mark, which is where the researchers had drawn the line of ‘if that was a real fire, you’d have suffocated by now’.

  • Kadh2000

    Grew up with elephant.  Never heard about a gorilla.

  • Hth

    Oliphaunt am I
    Biggest of all
    Huge, old, and tall
    If ever you’d met me
    You wouldn’t forget me

  • GDwarf

    The image gets better if you imagine the elephant is curious, as they generally are, and is literally sticking its nose into things, picking stuff up, smelling things, stepping on things, etc.

    Really, any animal can provoke that sort of “OMG! Elephant!” response from me. I adore zoos and wish that there was one in my city. Still, even when I was working with a sort-of farm-zoo-park-thing I’d continue to go “OMG! Donkey! Sheep! Goats! Seals!”, even after years of cleaning their cages/tanks. I’d imagine my first reaction to an elephant might well be about five minutes of gibbering joy.

  • PEDANTRY MODE ACTIVATED The adjective form of “Arrakis” is Arrakeen. PEDANTRY MODE DEACTIVATED

  • Tofu_Killer

    Gorillas just don’t have the cache they used to.

    I blame Dian Fossey. She did too good of a job making them sympathetic for them to remain a metaphor for trouble.

  • I think it’s a conflation of an idiom (“ignoring the elephant in the room”) and a joke (“Where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep? Wherever he wants to!”)

    I’m also inclined to say that the issue isn’t so much social pressure in the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ sense as much as it is “you don’t stare at the burn victim” sense. When people ignore “the elephant in the room”, it’s because everyone is both aware of the subject, but also aware that discussing the subject is fraught with the peril of making one or more people deeply uncomfortable, shaming them or otherwise embarrassing them. To remain silent means the tension remains, but at least it does not get worse. 

  • Tofu_Killer

    Of course the real elephant in the room is the lack of a Left Behind post so far…

  • Ethics Gradient

    According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘elephant in the room’ started as a phrase, especially in philosophy, as “something obvious and incongruous”, back in the 1930s. Only from the 1980s have they a written use as something significant but ignored.

    Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable only talks about the ignored object, and dates it to the 1970s. It mentions the “100lb/500lb/800lb gorilla” as an alternative spawned from the elephant (though I’d think a 100lb gorilla would be fairly easy to ignore), but also the lovely “moose on the table” – Canadian, perhaps? I’ve never heard that before, but must start using it now.

  •  Yeah, and even if you know about the Gorilla you can still miss stuff

  • Twig

    If you’re a tiny monkey in a coat in the room, you end up on Twitter. 

  • The mention of “chalance” reminds me of the Shockwave Radio Theatre’s skit “The Possible Dream”, which has Don Quixote and Sancho Panza using the rarely heard non-prefixed versions of words.

  •  I’ve heard this. It’s usually presented as a cutting metaphor for why atheism is right, though the only thing it seems to actually demonstrate is that chimpanzee reasearchers are giant douchebags.

  • Vermic

    I like to think that, a short swim from the Island of Misfit Toys, there’s a nature preserve for idiomatic animals.  The 800-pound gorilla lives there, and he sleeps wherever he wants, even in the living room of the elephant nobody notices.  After Carl Sagan died, they relocated the invisible dragon in his garage to the island (although no one can prove it).  Schrodinger’s Cat time-shares there six months out of the year.

  • Bronwyn

    I suspect that historically, what with all the monarchies, empires, and other such power structures that humans have been through, that catching onto What Must Not Be Discussed and not discussing it (overtly, at least) has been an important survival skill. I bet there’s been a lot of cultural and maybe even genetic selective pressure in that direction.

  • Yes, I’ve always known “elephant in the room” to mean something obvious and incongruous.

  • Launcifer

    I grew up with both in (household) use, though the one we used more generally was “elephant in the room”. For some reason, we used the gorilla to denote something that was actually potentially dangerous if one ignored it. Quite why one and not the other, I have absolutely no clue, but there ye go.

  • Random_Lurker

    “Suddenly, Mrs. Bœuf (the wife of a fellow employee) appears to say that
    her husband has turned into a rhinoceros and that streets are plagued
    with people who have turned into them. Botard argues against the
    existence of the so called rhinoceritis movement that Mrs. Bœuf claims
    is occurring, saying that the local people are too intelligent to be
    tricked by the empty rhetorics of a mass movement.”

  • MikeJ

    Cachet.  A cache is a hiding place, and the e is silent. Sorry, but hearing all those stories on TV about troops find a “weapons cachet” made me hypersensitive to it.
    cachet (cash-A) mark of distinction
    cache -(cash) hiding place

    I’ll try to be less annoying now.

  • Brian Baresch

    “There was also a large horse in the room, taking up most of it.” –Douglas Adams

    An editor friend reports coming across the phrase “the 800-pound elephant in the room”. Such a tiny little thing. (Adult elephants generally top 10,000 pounds.)

  • Although it could get mixed up with “mousse on the table”

    Which is something I, for one, would never ignore.

  • You need to post this somewhere that’s easier to link to ;)

  • Magic_Cracker

    So an elephant, gorilla, and Fred Clark walk into a room…

    …And the Hell’s Angel said, “That’s no podiatrist! That’s Marvin Olasky!”

  • P J Evans

     I went out with a guy who liked to go on skill-gimmick car rallies (where following the instructions is more important than speed). One of the more common rules was that you couldn’t ‘see’ anything more than a certain distance away, generally about a block. Which leads to the question being something like ‘Do you see [x]?’ where X is ‘invisible. And his usual answer would be ‘I see no [x] here’.

  • P J Evans

    Schrodinger’s Cat time-shares there six months out of the year.
    But no one knows whether it’s around or not,because they’d have to open the box.

  • Damanoid

     I’ll see your “Arrakeen” and raise you an “enormousness.”  

    “Enormity” would only apply to an evil elephant. 

  • MaryKaye

    My family used to mention the 800 lb parrot:  “When Polly wants a cracker, Polly gets a cracker.” But this was definitely in the context of “big thing that cannot be ignored” rather than “big thing that is somehow still ignored.”  I use “elephant in the room” for that as an adult but I don’t know what my family said:  “Emperor’s New Clothes” maybe.

    I have vivid memories of my uncle imitating the 800 lb parrot’s voice:  sort of a very low-voiced CHORP! sound.

    Our other idiomatic animals included the white bear (your wish will come true if you can stand in the corner for 3 minutes and not think of a white bear), the bat (in the belfry, indicating madness), and a whole lot of cats and dogs.  It was obligatory to mention “poodle” on any reference to “raining cats and dogs” even though poodle and puddle are not close in our accent. 

  • I’ve always known the 800-pound gorilla as the person or entity that always gets their own way because they are too powerful to be denied.  (Per the old joke “Where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep?  Anywhere it wants to.”)  Amazon has been described as the 800-pound gorilla of book sales, for example.  The Thing We Don’t Talk About in the middle of the living room has always been an elephant, as far as I’ve heard.

  •  One of the best things about that play is that it was once adapted into a movie titled, I am not making this up, “Zombie Strippers”

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Schrodinger’s Cat time-shares there six months out of the year. – Vermic

    And nobody is sure which six months.

    (Apologies to PJ Evans. This is why I should take the time to read ALL the posts before I reply to anybody.)

  • Lliira

     I think I’ve always heard “elephant” for something no one wants to acknowledge. As Sheila notes, the “800-pound gorilla” thing has a different, more violent connotation. Also, the gorilla seems to be popular among people older than me, whereas people my age and younger tend to use velociraptor or something else equally goofy-sounding but frightening if you really think about it.

  • It’s a lovely island. There’s a performing stage for the pony, and for the old dog. (not the same tricks, obviously) There’s grass for the snake, and at least one nut-bearing tree for the blind squirrel. 

  • If you have bananas on a pole, you’ll lose your bananas.

    Looks like the experiment with the chimps, the bananas, and the stepladder never actually happened. (But something vaguely similar did.)


  • Norman Rafferty

    I’ve always heard this as “the elephant in the room.”
    The other phrase I’d heard was “sleeping with a gorilla.” As in, when it rolls over, someone gets pushed out of bed.

  • redsixwing

    Ah, the one I heard was “the tiger in the bed.” Which is warmer and fuzzier, if no less dangerous.

  • Dana

    In response to those who haven’t: I’ve heard the “800 pound gorilla in the room” version of the idiom before, though less commonly than the elephant version. For good reason, I think; the elephant version is clearly superior.

  • I feel like this might be “dangerous” to include, but I was immediately reminded of this Onion article, and the relative cleverness of using the “800lb gorilla” as the substitution to simultaneously imply the metaphor we’re discussing.

    That aside, I feel like I’ve heard both somewhat equally. The 800lb gorilla seems more to imply a threat in the room being ignored, at least in terms of how animals are perceived. And I think that would also be accurate as a threat assessment…unless the elephant is drunk, anyway. 

  • Kadh2000

     And Pavlov’s dogs only show up for the dinner bell.

  • Tom V

    As far as I know “elephant in the room” originated with Alcoholics Anonymous.  I’ve never heard of a gorilla in the room before.

  • 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.

    “Money, power, sex … and elephants.”

     — Simon Illyan’s list of the motivations of men, from Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold

  • After Carl Sagan died, they relocated the invisible dragon in his garage to the island (although no one can prove it).

    But no one can disprove it, either.

  •  So the chef says, “That’s no ladle; that’s my knife!”