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Elephant In The Room – Meaning and Use

What does it mean to say there is an elephant in the room? It indicates that there is an obvious problem that is being ignored. In other words, it is a big issue that is not being acknowledged or talked about.

Example: John arrived at home with his shirt soaking wet! He gave his wife a hug as if nothing were wrong. His wife exclaimed: “Would you care to address the elephant in the room and tell me what happened?”

A picture of an elephant in the room

How the “Elephant In The Room” became a saying:

If there actually was an elephant in the room, don’t you think that you would notice it right away? Absolutely! It would be nearly impossible to miss such a large creature. Just think about having the largest land animal on earth standing in your living room! Elephants can be up to 14 feet tall and weigh up to 15,000 lb. So elephants are hard to ignore in any sized room!

So, this phrase can be used in situations where someone is aware of an issue but chooses to intentionally ignore it. It is like a big elephant being in the room, but they are not acknowledging it.

Unfortunately, no one knows exactly how this phrase originated. The first time it ever appeared in print was in the middle of the 20th century.

Wikipedia tells us that according to the Oxford English Dictionary, this phrase was first used in a June 20, 1959 copy of the New York Times newspaper. 

Example Sentences

  • My sister sat down for breakfast with tears in her eyes. She refused to tell us what happened, so there was an elephant in the room for the rest of the meal.
  • Everyone at school thought Julia was responsible for the mess in the hallway. However, she was able to address the elephant in the room by saying that she had nothing to do with it.

Related: Here are some more commonly used expressions: Bear With Me, Duly Noted, Ace in the Hole

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By Patrice Riley

Patrice Riley is the pen name of Dr. Deborah Riley. She is a retired English professor that enjoys grammar, literature, and all things writing.

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