Today, 12 August, is World Elephant Day. And in honour of these magnificent endangered animals, we’re going to look at some elephant-based idioms. Here, for example, are five phrases that you might want to use in your writing.
1. An Elephant Never Forgets
The idea that elephants can remember everything isn’t strictly true. But, because they have the largest brain of any land animal, elephants do have a pretty good memory, so the phrase ‘an elephant never forgets’ isn’t entirely wrong!
Elephants are good at remembering places where food and water can be found, for example. They can even recognise friends and enemies, and have been known to hold grudges! Perhaps that’s why this phrase is often used to describe people who remember things that we wish they’d forget. For example:
I hoped Fred wouldn’t remember lending me $20, but an elephant never forgets.
2. White Elephant
To describe something as a ‘white elephant’ suggests that it is expensive and extravagant but ultimately useless, such as an unprofitable building project:
Despite its grandeur, the palace became a white elephant.
The term has origins in the albino elephants that some Southeast Asian monarchs used to keep as status symbols. Such creatures, while prestigious, were expensive to care for. And because the elephants were considered sacred, they were never put to work, leading to the modern idea of a ‘white elephant’ being something costly that serves no practical purpose.
You may have also heard of a ‘white elephant stall’. This refers to a stall at a fundraising event that sells secondhand items (i.e. ‘white elephants’, or things that the previous owners no longer wanted). For example:
I paid 50 cents for this vase at the school fair’s white elephant stall.
Here again, ‘white elephant’ refers to something considered useless, but this time with the hope that it might find a new owner!
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3. The Elephant in the Room
This phrase is a metaphor for an obvious problem that nobody wants to talk about:
Everyone knew why George had resigned and there was clear tension in the office, but nobody wanted to talk about the elephant in the room.
If there really were an elephant in any room, of course, it would be pretty hard to ignore it! The phrase thus conjures the idea of deliberately ignoring something obvious.
4. An Elephant in Cairo
You may have come across this phrase if you work in computer programming. It comes from an absurd essay about the way different personalities might hunt elephants in Africa and, by inference, what profession they would be best suited to. The essay suggests that computer programmers would begin at the Cape of Good Hope and systematically search the continent for elephants until they arrived at Cairo!
Thanks to that quirky article, ‘an elephant in Cairo’ has become the name for a piece of data deliberately placed to ensure that a search algorithm will terminate.
5. Eat an Elephant One Bite at a Time
To ‘eat an elephant one bite at a time’ means to tackle a huge job by breaking it down into small, manageable tasks. For example:
Susan was daunted by the 12,000-word dissertation, but she decided to eat the elephant one bite at a time and sat down to create a schedule.
We are especially glad that this one isn’t meant to be taken literally!
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