Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Elephants in Rooms


TIME magazine has been criticised for its latest cover. The main story is about Chris Christie, the plain-speaking governor of the US state of New Jersey, who is tipped to be a future president.

He's also overweight, which is why TIME magazine’s cover featuring Mr Christie and the headline 'The Elephant In The Room' was savaged as a "cruel" fat joke this week:

- News report


Reading the above started me wondering as to the origin of the expression. Some info and trivia . . .

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The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as meaning “A significant problem or controversial issue which is obviously present but ignored or avoided as a subject for discussion, usually because it is more comfortable to do so.”


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According to the OED, the first recorded usage of the phrase as a simile was in The New Your Times on June 20, 1959: "Financing schools has become a problem about equal to having an elephant in the living room. It's so big you just can't ignore it."

The OED also states that the first published reference for this usage is the title of a 1984 book, An Elephant in the Living Room: A Leader’s Guide for Helping Children of Alcoholics, by Marion H. Typpo and Jill M. Hastings.

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Originators of the expression and similar concepts date from much earlier than the above recorded instances.

In 1882 Mark Twain wrote a story, The Stolen White Elephant, which looks at the bumbling efforts of detectives trying to find an elephant that was right on the spot after all. 

The expression appeared in a British journal in 1915 where it was presented as a trivial illustration of a question British schoolboys would be able to answer, e.g., "Is there an elephant in the class-room?"

In 1935, comedian Jimmy Durante starred on Broadway in the Billy Rose stage musical Jumbo, in which a police officer stopped him while leading a live elephant and asked him, "What are you doing with that elephant?" Durante's reply, "What elephant?", was a regular show-stopper. Durante reprised the piece in the 1962 film version of the play, Billy Rose's Jumbo.

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In 2006 British street artist Banksy had an exhibition in Los Angeles entitled “Barely Legal”.

The centrepiece of the exhibition was an elephant painted to resemble the wallpaper of the room in which it was standing:



The elephant, named Tai, was painted in that fashion to sumbolise how the problem of world poverty is ignored.

Although Los Angeles's Animal Services Department had given a permit for the 38-year-old female elephant to appear at the exhibition, officials later said that they regretted granting the permit and ordered Tai's owners, Have Trunk Will Travel, to remove the floral spray-paint.

According to ASD head Ed Boks "I think it sends a very wrong message that abusing animals is not only OK, it's an art form. We find it no longer acceptable to dye baby chicks at Easter, but it's OK to dye an elephant. Permits will not be issued for such frivolous abuse of animals in the future."

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The Elephant in the Room

Terry Kettering

There’s an elephant in the room. 
It is large and squatting, 
so it is hard to get around it. 

Yet we squeeze by with, 
“How are you?” and, “I’m fine,” 
and a thousand other forms of trivial chatter. 

We talk about the weather; 
we talk about work; 
we talk about everything else— 
except the elephant in the room. 

There’s an elephant in the room. 
We all know it is there. 
We are thinking about the elephant 
as we talk together. 

It is constantly on our minds. 
For, you see, it is a very big elephant. 
It has hurt us all, but we do not talk about 
the elephant in the room. 

Oh, please, say her name. 
Oh, please, say “Barbara” again. 
Oh, please, let’s talk about 
the elephant in the room. 

For if we talk about her death, 
perhaps we can talk about her life. 
Can I say, “Barbara” to you 
and not have you look away? 
For if I cannot, 
then you are leaving me alone 
in a room—with an elephant.


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