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It's a common proverb that you would see pink elephants if you drink to much.

In particular there is a quite memorable scene from Disney's 1941 "Dumbo" where Dumbo and his mouse companion receive a whole music show from pink elephants after they drank spiked water.

My question is if this proverb was in the English language before that movie or if that movie is somewhat the source of it, it is old enough to be after all.

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What bothers me more is that I have never seen any. :( – Yitzchak Mar 9 '11 at 22:26
May I use this opportunity to mention the pink elephant in the 1970s movie Harper Valley PTA, starring my favorite actress, Barbara Eden? (I guess I just did.) – oosterwal Mar 9 '11 at 23:51
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The Wikipedia article about it sums it nicely: the first reference was by Jack London in 1913, in John Barleycorn. It may be derived from a 1890’s saying: “being followed by pink giraffes”.

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Pink elephants have been used before the Disney movie.
Looking at the Corpus of Historical American, I find the following sentences.

I'm just as cordial a friend as whiskey ever had; but my con science rebels at floodin' my vital organs with seventeen different colored wines at one meal. I've been infested with pink elephants an' green dragons an' I never com plained none; but hang me if I can get any comfort out of a striped yellow spider ten feet high on horrid hairy legs.-- Wason, Robert Alexander (Happy Hawkins, 1909).

"You'll see me! You've been usin' me and my schooner long enough, and if there's anything in this yarn of yours, it's mine. Who's this man?" "He's a rich man, and he'll take us," said Dinshaw. "I'd believe ye sooner if ye said ye saw pink elephants," said Jarrow. "Git down to cases. What's his name? " "Money talks," suggested Vanderzee. " Moonshine! " declared Peth.-- Moore, Frederick Ferdinand (Isle o' Dreams, 1913)

All I could see were strange faces bobbing around that at times looked like pink elephants and Kodiak bears. One with the headdress of the Sisters of St. Ann seemed kindly, and I was prevailed to follow her to the hospital. She was Sister Epiphane, the trained nurse. She plastered me up with antiphlogistin mud and off I went to bed.-- Hubard, Bernard R. (MUSH, YOU MALEMUTES!, 1932)

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"Pink Elephant" was used as an example of a delirium tremens hallucination since at least as early as 1896. The phrase "seeing snakes" or "seeing snakes in ones boots" had been the standard euphamism for such hallucinations since at least the 1820s. In about 1890, writers started exaggerating the "snakes" idiom to include colored snakes, colored rats, and various, increasingly elaborate combinations of colored snakes, monkeys, rats and other animals. There is at least one example of "being followed by pink giraffes" in print, but that does not seem to have ever been a common idiom. "Pink Elephant" became a dominant image (although by no means the only image) between 1901 and 1904.


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