Elephant in the Room – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you feeling uncomfortable about a topic that no one seems to address? If so, you could tell them that you need to talk about “the elephant in the room.” This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.

Meaning

The expression “the elephant in the room” refers to a taboo or undiscussed topic. Everyone is aware of the topic and its issues, but no one is willing to address it. Instead, they leave it to fester, causing problems and strife in relationships.

The saying can refer to personal or public situations, and it’s common to hear people use the phrase when discussing politics and social policy.

Leaders that refuse to address social issues, such as homelessness, would be avoiding the “elephant in the room.”

Example Usage

“C’mon, Mike, let’s address the elephant in the room here. We’re both moving around the problem; it’s time we sorted it out before it starts causing problems with the team.”

“Honey, I know you don’t want to talk about it, but we have to address the elephant in the room. If we don’t, I don’t think we have a future together.”

“The boss told me that he wants us to put in more hours to get the sales figures up for the month. However, he refuses to address the issue of the CRM being on the fritz. The system is responsible for us losing deals, not our actions.”

“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. No one wants to talk about the opioid crisis and its effects on homelessness.”

Origin

The origin of the expression “the elephant in the room” comes from the 1950s. It’s a uniquely American saying, and language experts aren’t sure about the phrase’s source.

The first similar reference to the current phrase appears in The Charleston Gazette in July 1952, where it appears as follows.

“Chicago, that’s an old Indian word meaning get that elephant out of your room.”

The intent of the author is not clear in the article. However, experts believe that it has an ironic intention to it. The saying comes from the Native American culture, and it’s clear that it has nothing to do with elephants.

The first use of the phrase in its modern context comes from a book published by Typpo and Hastings in 1984, “An elephant in the living room: a leader’s guide for helping children of alcoholics.”

The phrase went on to experience mass adoption across the English language. Today, the term appears without the addition of “living” to the saying.

Phrases Similar to Elephant in the Room

  • Gorilla in the room.
  • Big problem.
  • Avoided issue.
  • Major challenge.

Phrases Opposite to Elephant in the Room

  • Let’s air our dirty laundry.
  • That’s a non-issue.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Elephant in the room.

Ways People May Say Elephant in the Room Incorrectly

The phrase has nothing to do with elephants. You’re not using it to describe an elephant in a cage or a pen at the zoo. The saying refers to an underlying problem that no one is willing to address.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Elephant in the Room

You can use the phrase “the elephant in the room” when trying to bring people’s attention to a well-known but undiscussed topic.

The phrase suits professional and social use. At work, you could use it to describe how the management refuses to address the problem of staff walking out on the job.

At home, you could use the phrase to tell your partner that you need to address a big problem that both of you ignore, hoping that it will go away on its own.

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