“Elephant in the room” is a popular, amusing, and useful idiom that’s used in English conversations. There are also versions in which the speaker cites other animals, as well as examples of the idiom in other languages, such as Spanish. The idiom is quite an unusual one that needs a great deal of context to understand. Its meaning is far from obvious for someone who is just learning to speak English. This is the primary factor that defines an idiom. It is something that needs context in order to make sense. One has to have heard it in conversation before because attempts to understand it based on the words alone fail.
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Meaning of “Elephant in the room”
“Elephant in the room,” usually said in dialogue as “the elephant in the room,” is used to refer to an important topic, problem, or issue that needs to be addressed but has yet to be. The amusing thing with this idiom is that the elephant issue is so large and obvious that everyone knows about it. It might make the conversation awkward or influence it in ways only obvious to those in the know. It can be used to refer to any looming conversation point.
Today, the phrase is sometimes used in regards to social taboos and addiction. The “elephant in the room” becomes something inherently negative that friends and family members have trouble addressing.
When to Use “Elephant in the room”
The phrase “elephant in the room” should be used when one wants to draw attention to something that’s been ignored. One person might suggest that the group address the “elephant in the room” so that the social tension loosens or so that the most important discussion can progress. The idiom is usually used in colloquial dialogue or amongst friends and family. But, unlike some idioms, this one could appear in more formal settings. It is possible for a speaker to use it when addressing an academic audience or even use it off-handedly in a paper.
Example Sentences with “Elephant in the room”
- Don’t you think it’s time that we address the elephant in the room?
- I can’t think about anything else but the elephant in the room.
- Alright everyone, now that we’ve exchanged pleasantries, why don’t we turn to the elephant in the room?
- I know it’s uncomfortable, but we really need to talk about the elephant in the room.
- Before we do anything else, someone needs to do something about this uncomfortable elephant in the room.
- I feel like no matter where I go nowadays. There’s a big elephant in the room.
Why Do Writers Use “Elephant in the room?”
Writers use “elephant in the room” when they want to help a reader connected to a situation in their story or novel. Idioms can be helpful tool for those who want to create realistic and convincing dialogue. Because readers will very likely have come across the idiom in real life, it might make one feel more connected to the conversation occurring on paper.
But, just like in real life, there are places in which it is more and less appropriate to use the phrase. If a writer chooses to use it somewhere odd or out of place, the reader will immediately tap into that. That being said, it is possible to use any phrase uncomfortably or strangely on purpose in order to make the reader understand something about the character speaking.
Origins of “Elephant in the room”
Usually, the phrase the “elephant in the room” is cited as originating from an 1814 story by poet Ivan Krylov titled “The Inquisitive Man.” It describes a man who visits a museum and takes perfect note of everything he sees, except for an elephant. Due to the humor of the story and its immense relatability, the phrase has become proverbial. Alternatively, the Oxford English Dictionary recorded its first use slightly different, as a simile, in the New York Times in 1959. The passage reads:
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.
Other sources, such as Phrase Finder, cite its first appearance in 1952. As is often the case with idioms, this one has several possible origins that are usually dismissed. One such example is Mark Twain’s “The Stolen White Elephant” in which detectives seek out a missing elephant to only find it somewhere they should’ve seen it right away.
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