In researching phrase origins over the past nine plus years, I have often found that sources thought to be reliable sometimes miss the mark in identifying how long an expression has been in use. “An elephant in the room” is one of these.
This idiom refers to an obvious problem or truth that no one wants to talk about. It comes from the fact that if an elephant were in a room, it would be impossible for it to go unnoticed. To show how inaccurate some can get, Derek Paget, in “No Other Way to Tell It,” 1996, attributed the actual coining of phrase to Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty:
“Bernard MacLaverty was already a well-known Irish writer when he took on the screenplay for Hostages … For example, his 1983 novel “Cal” was filmed in 1984 by David Puttnam’s Enigma Company. He is also the likely originator of the popular phrase ‘the elephant in the room.’ He used the idea of an elephant in a room in his 1978 children’s book ‘A Man in Search of a Pet.’”
However, the saying had been around much longer. Even the Oxford English Dictionary got it wrong by attributing it a The New York Times article June 20, 1959 which said:
“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.”
In 1814, Russian poet and fabulist Ivan Andreevich Krylov wrote a fable titled “The Inquisitive Man.” Its main character went to a museum and noticed the minutest details, but failed to see an elephant. The proverb was born of this tale.
In 1915, The Journal of Education, Volume 37, page 288, published in London, had the following: “Is there an elephant in the class - room?”
Stan St. Clair is the author of the best-selling book, “Most Comprehensive Origins of Clichés, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions.” If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, contact him at email@example.com.