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"Elephant in the room" is an English metaphorical idiom for an obvious truth that is either being ignored or going unaddressed. The idiomatic expression also applies to an obvious problem or risk no one wants to discuss.
It is based on the idea that an elephant in a room would be impossible to overlook; thus, people in the room who pretend the elephant is not there have chosen to avoid dealing with the looming big issue.
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."
This idiomatic expression may have been in general use much earlier than 1959. For example, the phrase appears 44 years earlier in the pages of a British journal in 1915. The sentence was presented as a trivial illustration of a question British schoolboys would be able to answer, e.g., "Is there an elephant in the class-room?"
The first widely disseminated conceptual reference was a story written by Mark Twain in 1882, “The Stolen White Elephant”, which slyly dissects the inept, far-ranging activities of detectives trying to find an elephant that was right on the spot after all. This may have been the reference in the legal opinion of United States v. Leviton, 193 F. 2d 848 (2nd Circuit, 1951), makes reference in its opinion, "As I have elsewhere observed, it is like the Mark Twain story of the little boy who was told to stand in a corner and not to think of a white elephant."
In 1935, comedian Jimmy Durante starred on Broadway in the Billy Rose stage musical Jumbo, in which a police officer stopped him while leading a live elephant and asked him, "What are you doing with that elephant?" Durante's reply, "What elephant?", was a regular show-stopper. Durante reprised the piece in the 1962 film version of the play, Billy Rose's Jumbo.
The term refers to a question, problem, solution, or controversial issue which is obvious to everyone who knows about the situation, but which is deliberately ignored because to do otherwise would cause great embarrassment, or trigger arguments or is simply taboo. The idiom can imply a value judgment that the issue ought to be discussed openly, or it can simply be an acknowledgment that the issue is there and not going to go away by itself.
The term is often used to describe an issue that involves a social taboo, such as race, religion, or even suicide. This idiomatic phrase is applicable when a subject is emotionally charged; and the people who might have spoken up decide that it is probably best avoided.
The idiom is commonly used in addiction recovery terminology to describe the reluctance of friends and family of an addicted person to discuss the person's problem, thus aiding the person's denial. Especially in reference to alcohol abuse, the idiom is sometimes coupled with that of the pink elephant, q.v. "the pink elephant in the room."
For some, their first encounter with this phrase comes through the poem of the same name by Terry Kettering. In one edition of Time Magazine in 2013, Chris Christie was labeled as the "Elephant in the Room" on the cover page.
The phrase "eight-hundred-pound gorilla (in the room)" is a similar idiomatic expression; it refers to a large, unstoppable individual or organization that can exert its will as it desires, even if people do their best to ignore it (e.g. "Characterized by the leading fly-fishing trade journal as an '800-pound gorilla' in the fly-fishing industry, Orvis is recognized for its 'unparalleled influence on the sport'.") This expression stems from a riddle which begins by asking, "Where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep?" and ends with the punch-line, "Anywhere it wants to."
A variation is the phrase "elephant in the corner" which is infrequently used to the same effect.
Logician and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein used an example of a rhinoceros in the room to show the impossibility of proving negative existential statements.
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