The online etymology dictionary gives "Oliphant" as the predecessor of "elephant."

Dictionary.com defines "olfactory" as "pertaining to the sense of smell."

Given the similarity of "oliphant" and "olfactory," could the first word be derived from the second?

I'll close the loop by noting that an elephant is noted for its "nose" (trunk).

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    No. See this and this. – user21497 Apr 30 '13 at 13:01
  • @BillFranke: I checked those sources and came to the "opposite" conclusion (that is, that my theory, while not supported by those references was also not "contraindicated"). – Tom Au Apr 30 '13 at 13:26
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    Contraindicate means "to make a medical treatment inadvisable". Perhaps "precluded" would be a better word. In any case, I could say the same about the etymological definitions of "nose" & "schnozz". Neither entry precludes the possibility that they're related to oliphant, olfactory, or elephant. Or nosejob and blowjob, for that matter. – user21497 Apr 30 '13 at 14:59
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    You're bad today, @BillFranke! :-) Hope you don't get popped in the honker! lol! – Kristina Lopez Apr 30 '13 at 18:04
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    @KristinaLopez The hazards of placing the @ poetically rather than, well, pragmatically at the very beginning of the comment. – Kris May 1 '13 at 4:57

The online etymology for olfactory seems to counsel against this

( ol ( ēre ) to smell (akin to odor) + facere to make, do) + -tōrius -tory

but the purported etymology for elephant traces to

"probably from a non-I.E. language, likely via Phoenician (cf. Hamitic elu "elephant," source of the word for it in many Sem. languages, or possibly from Skt. ibhah "elephant"). Re-spelled"


"not found in Scripture except indirectly in the original Greek word (elephantinos) translated "of ivory" in Rev. 18:12, and in the Hebrew word (shenhabim, meaning "elephant's tooth") rendered "ivory" in 1 Kings 10:22 and 2 Chr. 9:21."

The animal name seems to be connected to the ivory whereas the sense is derived from two roots: ol and facere.

  • "seems to counsel against this" fair enough. But it might be possible to close the loop further if we could establish a connection between "tooth" and "nose." – Tom Au Apr 30 '13 at 13:29
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    There's a physical connection, but no linguistic one. – John Lawler Apr 30 '13 at 15:09
  • @JohnLawler: Linguistic connections are often derived from "physical" connections. – Tom Au Apr 30 '13 at 16:46
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    Everything symbolized in language is of course a projection of the human body; that's been obvious since Protagoras. But "linguistic connections" means historical continuity of form and reference for particular lexical items -- like thermos, furnace, and burn, all of which come, via different routes, from the PIE root *gʷher-. – John Lawler Apr 30 '13 at 18:34

The most likely root would be the Arabic word al-fil, the elephant.

[Sansk. Hasti,] Pers. pil, Arab. al-fil --> Sp. alfil, It. alfiere (meaning ensign), [Fr. fou (=joker)] ?--> Eng. elephant

Many words that trace their roots to Arabic incorrectly carry the definite article al along into the destination language: al-zebr --> algebra.

When chess came to Persia from India, the Sanskrit name (Hasti –note by me) was translated to pil, and when chess came to the Muslims from Persia, the move had not changed, and the only changes to the name were made to suit Arabic phonology. The name thus became fil and then alfil (prefixing the Arabic definite article, al). The names sometimes changed even more when chess eventually reached Europe, but eventually started to refer to the modern bishop rather than the alfil. … alfil is still the name of the Bishop in Spanish and some other European languages …

Bodlaender on piececlopedia:

Golombek also points out that the English word elephant was also borrowed from another language. Although I can't document the connection, elephant does sound similar to alfil. Perhaps it has its roots in the name for a Chess piece. [Golombek, Harry. Chess: A History, 1976.]

Meta: Will try to add further if I find more details along the way.

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    There is discussion here en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Talk:elephant about the possibility that it is Arabic derived, but that's apparently a minority opinion and any etymologies I've seen derive it from Egyptian through Greek. – MetaEd Apr 30 '13 at 15:24
  • @MετάEd It was once the majority opinion that the world was flat. I did note that wiktionary reference early on. However, majority opinion has no relevance in unearthing facts. Even I am not saying Arabic origin is for sure, only more plausible. – Kris May 1 '13 at 4:53
  • Just a note: Sanskrit has many words for elephant, including (most common) gaja, hasti (hastin is the root), ibha etc. – ShreevatsaR May 3 '13 at 5:40

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