Two phrases associate with elephants, by English with Stephen

Word Stories: Elephants

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Today we are talking elephants. Yes, that’s right, the big scary animal that walked over the Alps with Hannibal, eats peanuts, never forgets anything but is for some reason scared of mice.

So let’s start with a elephant joke that I remember from way back when I was kid.

What time is it when a elephant sits on a fence?

Time to get a new fence.

Ok, so it might not be the funniest joke, but I can’t remember many jokes, so that is one of the best I have got.

The first expression we are going to look at is ‘a white elephant’.

A white elephant is used to describe something that you don’t want and you would like to get rid of or throw away. However, you often can’t throw it away because it was a birthday gift from an aunt and if they find out that you didn’t like the present, they will be annoyed.

Sometimes, if you go to a school fair they might have a White Elephant stall. This will be full of things people don’t want anymore so they donate them to the school and then the school tries to sell them for a small price.

But as a kid I was always confused as to why we use ‘white elephant’. I remember asking my mum if there was a prize for the person who spent the most money, and that prize would be some sort of white elephant. 

Well, there are two competing theories for the origin of the word.

The first theory is that the King of Siam, modern day Thailand, used to give real white elephants to people that he didn’t like. You see, white elephants were sacred in Thailand at that time and so if you had a white elephant you couldn’t use them to work like other elephants and, because the king had given it to you, you couldn’t give it somebody else as a gift. At the same time, it costs a lot of money to look after and feed elephants, so it would cause a lot of economic problems for the owner.

The other theory is associated with P.T. Barnum. P.T. Barnum was famous for running a circus in the USA in the late 1800s and he decided that he wanted a white elephant. He sent an agent to India to buy one for $100, 000, a lot of money today and an incredible amount of money in the late 1800s. Unfortunately for P.T. Barnum, and the elephant, it died on its way over to the USA.

P.T. Barnum then decided to spend another $100, 000 on a second white elephant. This time, the elephant arrived safely in America, but instead of being white it was described as ‘grey with white spots.’ P.T. Barnum was so upset he refused to use the elephant in the circus. He also couldn’t sell it, and nor could he give it away as a gift, after all, who wanted a huge elephant in the USA? Instead kept it in a barn on a farm until it died a few years later.

So there you go, whatever the origin of the word, the phrase lives on with the meaning of an unwanted gift that you cannot give away. It has nothing to do with winning a white elephant if you spend a lot of money at the school fair.

Another phrase whose origin is not clear is ‘an elephant in the room’. This expression is used when there is something big and important that you need to talk about, but everyone just ignores it and pretends it doesn’t exist.

Can anyone see the elephant in the room?

I love this expression. The idea that there could be an elephant in your living room, but you continue to talk about the weather or the football and NOT the elephant, makes me smile every time.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that the first time this expression appeared was in 1959 in The New York Times. However, while the words might be a bit different the idea of a big elephant that nobody can see is older.

In 1814, the Russian writer Ivan Krylov , wrote a story about a man who went to a museum and saw lots of amazing stuff, but didn’t see the massive elephant. Since then, other writers have used the same idea, such as Dostoevsky and Mark Twain. Incidentally, Mark Twain wrote about a white elephant that nobody could find but, it turned out, was right where it was supposed to be all along.

To finish off today, how about another elephant joke?

Why can’t an elephant use a computer?
Because they are afraid of mice.

I’m sorry, that was really bad.

Do you know any better elephant jokes? If you do, send them to me. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube at Learning English with Stephen.

I also have a website called If you go to the site, you will find the transcript to this episode, lots of photos of famous elephants, and links to other useful information.

Speak soon!

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