Elephant In The Room


What does “elephant in the room” mean? It is to ignore an obvious problem, or to fail at addressing an issue that stands out in a major way.

Example: As Jim was walking to work, a car drove through a puddle of water nearby and it splashed all over him. He was soaked! But he didn’t want to be late for work, so he continued on his way despite this.

Shortly after arriving, Jim had to attend a business meeting. As he entered the room, all eyes were on him. He plopped down into an empty chair and acted as if nothing was wrong. So his boss turned to him and asked, “Jim, would you like to address the elephant in the room and tell us why you’re soaking wet?”

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
1. Sticks out like a sore thumb
An elephant in a room.
This elephant is in an office room. Please, take a seat right over—you know what, on second thought, you should probably remain standing.

Origin Of ‘Elephant In The Room’

An elephant in a room would very noticeable; it would stand out like a sore thumb. After all, these mammals are the largest land animals on earth. They can grow up to 14 feet (4 m) tall and weigh up to 15,000 lb (7,000 kg). So as you can see, if an elephant were standing in your living room, it’s not something you can easily ignore.

This is like when people are aware of a problem, but they do not acknowledge it in any way. It’s as if there’s a giant elephant in the room and they are intentionally ignoring it.

So then, where did this idiom come from? Well, its exact origin is unclear. However, it doesn’t look like its that old; the phrase is a relatively recent one, because it is only found in print as early as the mid 20th century.

According to Wikipedia, the Oxford English Dictionary credits the New York Times newspaper from June 20th, 1959, as the first recorded use of this phrase as a simile. While I would like to find a copy of the newspaper to see it for myself, I am unable to find one, however there is apparently a line from it that reads:

“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.”

Example Sentences

  • The sinks were overflowing in the bathroom at work and everyone thought that Dave was responsible. When Dave heard about the accusations, he spoke to everyone. Thus, he addressed the elephant in the room by explaining how he had nothing to do with it.
  • My brother came and sat down for dinner with a black eye. He didn’t want to tell us what happened, so there was an elephant in the room for a few days until he finally spilled the beans.

Note: Hi, person reading this. If you liked what you read above, well, there’s more where that came from, as they say. If you look up at the top, there’s a menu. Yes, use that to access a list of common phrases.

If you want another elephant related phrase, well, have you heard about the one that goes an elephant never forgets? If not, then head on over there and learn about its meaning and origin!