The Grammarphobia Blog

Wittgenstein and the elephant in the room

Q: I’m trying to track down the origin of “elephant in the room.” My fading memory recalls something about a play from the first half of the 20th century in which the curtain opens on a living room with a body on the floor. Ring a bell?

A: When we use the expression “elephant in the room” today, the elephant we’re usually talking about is something that’s too obvious to go unnoticed but uncomfortable to mention.

For example, all the relatives attending the wake for filthy-rich Great Aunt Beatrice wonder what’s in her unopened will, but none of them bring it up. It’s the elephant in the room.

Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition for this sense of “elephant in the room” and variants thereof:

“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.”

The OED’s first published reference for this usage is the title of a 1984 book, An Elephant in the Living Room: A Leader’s Guide for Helping Children of Alcoholics, by Marion H. Typpo and Jill M. Hastings.

Here’s a more illustrative citation, from a 2004 issue of the New York Times: “When it comes to the rising price of oil, the elephant in the room is the ever-weakening United States dollar.”

In short, the OED’s citations for this use of the phrase go back only about 30 years. And we haven’t found any evidence of a connection to an earlier “body in the room,” in either a theatrical or a real crime scene.

However, there’s an older “elephant in the room” with a different meaning—roughly, something huge yet irrelevant, or perhaps unprovable. Here’s the OED’s definition of this one:

“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.”

The OED credits the philosopher Harry Todd Costello with the first recorded use of this sense of the phrase.

In an essay published in 1935, Costello wrote: “It is going beyond observation to assert there is not an elephant in the room, for I cannot observe what is not.” (The essay was published that year in American Philosophy Today and Tomorrow, by Horace Meyer Kallen and Sidney Hook.)

Did the philosophical use of the phrase lead to the more familiar usage that’s common today? Perhaps, but before committing ourselves we did a bit more searching. And we came across yet other kinds of elephants.

For example, here’s a quotation in which the elephant is too big to ignore, but not necessarily off-limits in conversation. It comes from a 1961 issue of the Appraisal Journal, a real-estate industry publication:

“To continue to pretend that the American economy is thriving in an isolated vacuum would be like trying to ignore the presence of an elephant in the living room.”

And in a 1969 essay entitled “Elephants in the Living Room,” David Aspy used the term “elephant experience” to mean one that’s just too much to cope with—like coming home to find a you-know-what standing you-know-where.

We’ve also found the phrase “pink elephant in the room,” an apparent reference to hallucinating or waking up with a hangover.

This example is from a collection of anecdotes called Gridiron Nights (1915), by Arthur Wallace Dunn: “ ‘It reminds me of the fellow who woke up in the night and found a pink elephant in the room.’ ‘How did he get rid of it?’ ‘Oh, it backed slowly out through the keyhole.’ ”

Even before that, Mark Twain wrote a very funny story, “The Stolen White Elephant” (1882), about something too big to miss yet impossible to find.

In the story, which caricatures detective fiction, a large white elephant, freshly imported from Siam, disappears while quarantined in Jersey City.

But if the Twain story inspired the phrase “elephant in the room,” why did it take so long?

As you can see, in searching for the roots of the expression that’s popular today, it’s hard to determine which of these elephants might have suggested it.

But we suspect that white elephants and pink elephants are mere red herrings in this case. The clue to the origin of our particular “elephant in the room” probably lies with Harry Costello, the philosopher mentioned a few paragraphs ago.

Elephants are familiar presences in philosophy and logic. For instance, many philosophers have commented on the Indian parable of the blind men who attempt to describe an elephant by touch, each “seeing” and hence defining it differently. The fable is often used to make a point about language, experience, and deniability.

The fable would have been familiar to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. The two had an argument at Cambridge University in the early 20th century about the certainty of the proposition “There are no elephants in the room.”

Their argument was much discussed and long influential in philosophical circles. It was probably what Costello had in mind in his 1935 comment on the assertion that “there is not an elephant in the room.”

So can we trace the popular sense of the phrase back to Wittgenstein in the days before World War I? That’s our guess. But, as Wittgenstein would caution, we can’t know it with empirical certainty.

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