It is common in American English to refer to a powerful person or organization as an 800 pound gorilla. The expression makes sense -- a gorilla of that size would certainly be intimidating -- but what's so special about the number 800?

Searching "n lb gorilla" on Google for various values of n results in many more hits when n = 800 than when n is any other quantity. Also, the Google Ngram Viewer finds notable occurrences of the phrase "800 pound gorilla" in texts starting around the late 1970s; other sized gorillas don't seem to be mentioned at all.

The Wikipedia entry for the idiom claims that the phrase is rooted in a riddle ("Where does an 800 lb gorilla sleep?"), but that's just passing the buck. A 700 lb or 900 lb gorilla would be equally entitled to sleep wherever he wants to.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry for gorilla states that the average male gorilla weighs about 400 lb, occasionally reaching 500 lb in the wild. Only obese gorillas in captivity have attained weights of 600 lb. So the number doesn't even seem to be related to gorilla biology (except that it is safely larger than any known gorilla, save King Kong).

Given that it's an arbitrary figure, is there any reason the number 800 would be more popular than any other? More generally, is there any relevant research into why some numbers would be more popular or pleasing than other in contexts like this?

  • This dictionary of animal metaphors attributes the joke to a 600-pound gorilla as well.
    – JoseK
    Sep 7 '11 at 12:22
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    I was hoping somebody would have some related linguistic research to point to, but I'm getting the sense there aren't too many real scientists here.
    – benzado
    Sep 7 '11 at 18:43
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    I'm voting to re-open. I believe the fact of any specific number coming to dominate is largely a matter of chance, and it's irrelevant to discuss biological probability or look for the "first coinage". But I think the mechanism by which 800lb came to prominence is potentially both identifiable and important, in that the same mechanism will often be involved in honing those emergent slang expressions which frequently concern us here at ELU. Sep 7 '11 at 20:49
  • @FumbleFingers Thank you, mechanism is a great word for what I wanted to get at. If you think editing or re-tagging my question would help make that clearer, please do. (In an attempt to be interesting, perhaps I put too much focus on gorillas.)
    – benzado
    Sep 8 '11 at 14:58
  • Most people don't like changing their minds, so I doubt this question will actually get reopened however much it's amended. You'd be better off asking a new question, with perhaps a few more examples (7-stone weakling, 10-foot bargepole, 9-day wonder?) where an apparently arbitrary "standard" value dominates, but not because of an easily-identifiable "original source". That might get people to focus on the general mechanism[s], rather than the specifics of how appropriate some particular value might be. Sep 8 '11 at 15:26

The oldest reference I found in Google Books is Treks Across the Veldt by Theodore J. Waldeck in 1944:

... for there was almost no exaggerating the strength of a seven- or eight-hundred-pound gorilla, who could lift a man in one hand and pluck off his legs and arms as if they had been parts of a fly.

The next Google Books reference I found is from the 1960 The Geological Evolution of North America: A Regional Approach to Historical Geology by Clark and Stearn:

"As one branch of the apes increased in size to animals like the 800- pound gorilla, they found swinging through the trees difficult and began to walk on the ground."

These do not definitively answer "why 800?", but it's notable they're about real gorillas rather than the metaphorical gorillas who sleep wherever they wish, and show up from 1967 onwards (Challenge: the magazine of economic affairs, Volume 2):

The financial markets today are the equivalent of an 800-pound gorilla. They are difficult to ignore!

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    This sounds like the actual source/answer. Good job finding that.
    – jcolebrand
    Sep 7 '11 at 15:15
  • Curious, though, since actual gorillas don't weigh that much in nature.
    – benzado
    Sep 7 '11 at 18:37
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    You can't actually read it here because of bad google books layout, but I assure you this entry (also from 1967) definitely says "900-pound gorilla". And this one really is the joke itself - unlike Hugo's, which is just a bungled bowlderisation of the elephant in the room. Sep 8 '11 at 2:25
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    ...and this one (admittedly from 1974) has a 500lb gorilla, and says it's "an old joke". Sep 8 '11 at 2:41

I waded through the first few dozen instances of gorilla sleep in Google books, a goodly proportion of which were in fact references to this joke. These were the counts I had before I got bored...

  • 300lb 1
  • 400lb 3
  • 500lb 8
  • 600lb 6
  • 800lb 12

(there were also 6 with unspecified weight, and one for 2500lb).

The actual number is irrelevant to the joke, so people won't normally bother remembering it in order to faithfully reproduce whatever value was used when they first heard the joke.

The key point is most if not all of my counted references predate widespread use of the Internet. People today are much more likely to simply Google the number, since many of us have little idea what values are "suitable" (witness the 2500lb example!). Obviously that relatively small bias in favour of 800lb has been massively amplified over the past decade or so, simply because more people go with the existing front-runner.

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    The research is interesting (thank you) but I don't think people look up the number before making the reference. As an idiom, it's not the sort of thing you fact-check.
    – benzado
    Sep 7 '11 at 18:40
  • @benzado: You got a better explanation? If you understand the theory of evolution you'll know that even a small advantage rapidly takes over. If only 1 in 100 people check for a suitable number, that will decisively dominate after just a few years. The joke seems to have gained traction around 1970 - check Google Books for the first decade and you'll soon see it was repeated with many different weights initially. But once 800lb started to rise above the common herd, it soon wiped the floor with the opposition. Sep 7 '11 at 20:41
  • It doesn't need a fact-check for the existing front-runner to start imprinting itself on peoples memories. When a meme reaches a certain level, people are exposed to it over and over again - and this happens very easily and often on the internet.
    – user11931
    Sep 8 '11 at 1:57
  • @Steve314: Well, we're getting exposed to it over and over right here. But I must have first heard it decades ago, and I really wouldn't know or care if that first one was 4/5/6/7/8/900lb. If I ever repeated the joke back then I'd have just randomly chosen any of those numbers. If I'd been born 40 years later though, there'd be at least a 1 in 100 chance that my first re-telling would be on the Net, and that I'd google for the most common weight (or indeed, just to save typing by using cut&paste). Sep 8 '11 at 2:11

Quite large gorillas in the wild are at most 550 pounds; so an 800 pound gorilla is one that's oversized, even fat.

As Wikipedia states, this phrase first originated with a riddle, "Where does an 800 pound gorilla sleep?" Ans: "Anywhere it wants." Because this is the standard idiom, when people want to speak hyperbolically they will sometimes exaggerate the number to "1,000 pound gorilla", or some other, even larger number.

In short: no, the number 800 does not have any special significance, except perhaps with reference to the typical (male) gorilla's average weight (450 pounds).

  • I had no idea that actual gorilla weights figured into it. Interesting! That explains why 800 was initially picked, but doesn't explain why it has been so faithfully repeated, instead of inflating over time or just rounding up to an even 1,000.
    – benzado
    Sep 7 '11 at 5:27
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    Where do you get 600 pounds as the average weight? It's more like 200 pounds for an adult female and 400 pounds for an adult male.
    – Hugo
    Sep 7 '11 at 5:31
  • You're right, Hugo. I've been had! Wikipedia: "Adult males, also called silverbacks, range in weight 140–200 kg (310–440 lb). ... Occasionally, a silverback of over 230 kg (510 lb) has been recorded in the wild. Obese gorillas in captivity have reached a weight of 270 kg (600 lb)." This makes the idiom/joke even more mysterious.
    – benzado
    Sep 7 '11 at 5:47
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    There is a great new yorker cartoon. A gorilla at a hotel on a weigh scale and the clerk saying "Yes an 800lb gorilla can sleep where he wants, but for a 700lb gorilla we are full"
    – mgb
    Sep 7 '11 at 5:57
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    @benzado - maybe it's just that 800 is the largest round number that people can accept? So the exaggeration can go this far, but going further would start to feel childish, like saying "a million billion squillion pound gorilla"? Also, 1000 may be too obviously rounded - people often seem to like their arbitrary numbers to not be too obviously arbitrary.
    – user11931
    Sep 7 '11 at 12:18

Maybe "eight" is the funniest number to start the answer to a joke with. Has anyone researched the relative humor value of various numbers?

  • I don't know if that is a serious answer, but assuming it is, check out en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – JeffSahol
    Sep 7 '11 at 16:20
  • This is sort of what I was thinking: maybe 800 has a more pleasing sound or something like that.
    – benzado
    Sep 7 '11 at 18:47

The answer to your question is No, there is no known reason for preferring 800 to any other number. I am not aware of any research into the question, but I haven't looked.

Compare "The whole nine yards", "42", and "A Thousand Nights and a Night"

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    But... "42" is clearly not arbitrary. It would be obviously absurd to claim that any other number is the answer to the great question.
    – user11931
    Sep 7 '11 at 12:15
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    @Colin So you're confident there is no known reason, because you don't know of any relevant research, because you haven't looked for any. Thanks!
    – benzado
    Sep 7 '11 at 18:35

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