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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." – FumbleFingers Jan 18 '14 at 21:59
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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 and is as follows:

Draft additions March 2006

orig. U.S. elephant in the room (also elephant in the living room) and variants. Categories » a. The type of something obvious and incongruous, esp. (in Logic and Philos.) in discussions of statements which may or may not correspond to observable facts.

1935 H. T. Costello in H. M. Kallen & S. Hook Amer. Philos. Today & Tomorrow 106 It is going beyond observation to assert there is not an elephant in the room, for I cannot observe what is not. 1948 H. C. Haydn Time is Noon 310 To drag in, no matter if it is as incongruous as an elephant in the living room, some reference to the class struggle. 1959 N.Y. Times 20 June 19 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. 2003 Philos. Stud. 112 12

b. 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.

1984 M. H. Typpo & J. M. Hastings (title) An elephant in the living room: a leader's guide for helping children of alcoholics. 1996 Sunday Times (Nexis) 22 Dec., All the comment had missed the elephant in the room—and thus, despite the SIB's mild reform ideas, something like Sumitomo could happen again. 2001 M. F. Green Schizophrenia Revealed i. 12 Accessory symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, became the elephant in the middle of the room. 2004 N.Y. Times (National ed.) 29 Aug. iii. 4/4 When it comes to the rising price of oil, the elephant in the room is the ever-weakening United States dollar.

  • 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 – Wayfaring Stranger Jan 19 '14 at 3:51

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