If there is an elephant in the room, it means that an obvious problem is being ignored. Put another way, it is a noticeable issue that is not acknowledged or addressed.
The Origin of “Elephant In the Room”
Literally speaking, if there was an elephant in the room, you would notice it right away. How could you not? It’d stick 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 regardless of the kind of room it’s in, an elephant is not something that can be easily ignored.
Thus, this metaphor might be applied to situations where a person is aware of a problem, but they choose to not acknowledge it. It’s as if there is a big elephant in the room and they are intentionally ignoring it.
The Origin of This Phrase
So where did this idiom come from? Unfortunately, its exact origin is unclear. However, it doesn’t look that old. For example, its earliest known appearance in print is in 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. I tried finding a copy of this newspaper, but I was unable to. 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.”
- My brother 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 the duration of dinner.
- Everyone at work thought Dave was responsible for the mess in the bathroom. However, he addressed the elephant in the room by explaining to everyone that he had nothing to do with it.