Where does the phrase "The elephant in the room" come from? Why an elephant?

If it is 'elephant' because it has to mean something big, why not "the whale in the room" instead, since whales are big?

If it has to be something that needs urgent attention then why not "the fire in the room", which would be much more urgent than an elephant?

Bottom line, what has brought an elephant in this phrase?

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    From Wikipedia - The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first recorded use of the phrase, as a simile, as The New York 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." Jan 18, 2014 at 21:59

1 Answer 1


An 'elephant in the room' has been used in a variety of senses for 'something obvious and incongruous' since the first recorded example in 1935. (OED)

However it is only since as recently as 1984 that it has been around in the sense for which it is nowadays most often used, namely 'for 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'. (OED)

The full OED entry is worth reading.

  • Google ngram returns an interesting early usage of elephants in a trial involving patent law: "Samuel Colt vs. the Mass. Arms Company; Report of the Trial of the Above-Entitled Cause, at Boston, on the Thirtieth Day of June, A.D. 1851..."--- "I will now turn to the claims of the patent. His Honor will instruct you that our case stands upon what we claim; although you might have described an elephant in your patent, if you do not claim him, he is not your elephant." goo.gl/Yssksz Jan 19, 2014 at 3:51

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