Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

White Elephants in the Room

Posted by Neal on October 27, 2008

When I moved to central Ohio, a three-story downtown mall called City Center was the place to go. Across the street from it was an old-school five-story department store, a locally famous business named Lazarus. Connecting the two was an enclosed overhead walkway. I heard so many people say they’d done something or other or gotten such-and-such from City Center that I went to see the place myself. It was pleasant enough, although I didn’t appreciate having to pay to park there. Sixteen years later, City Center is an empty hulk, though it’s still open for people to walk through on their way to the Capital Theatre or the Hyatt on Capital Square after parking in the now-free garage. The Lazarus store across the street is closed, too. (Another Lazarus store has survived, at one of the suburban retail centers that helped kill City Center, but after a merger with Macy’s, it underwent a Cougar-to-Mellencamp-style name change, from Lazarus to Lazarus Macy’s to just Macy’s.) And as for the walkway between the old Lazarus and City Center, I have learned that it has long been considered an eyesore and a scary, gloomy barrier separating the Capital district from the southern part of downtown. I learned that from a newspaper story last week, which said that the walkway is scheduled to be demolished. In announcing the demolition of the walkway, Columbus mayor Michael Coleman also offered some comments about what should become of City Center, which the newspaper reported:

Acknowledging the mall as “the big white elephant in the room,” the mayor said its rebirth is a “marathon and not a sprint.” (Robert Vitale, “Walkway over High Street to bite dust,” The Columbus Dispatch, Oct. 23, 2008, p. B3)

“Big white elephant in the room”? In the linguistics blogosphere, idiom blends like it’s not rocket surgery, that’s the way the cookie bounces, under the eight ball, and more recently, green behind the ears have been discussed before, and show that idioms with similar meanings and structure are liable to hybridize. White elephant in the room showed me that for blending to occur, the meanings and structures don’t have to be very similar if the idioms have enough unusual words in common.

First of all, we have the idiom white elephant, which is what the mayor was after. Here’s the definition currently on Wikipedia, which matches the meaning I have for the phrase:

A white elephant is a valuable possession which its owner cannot dispose of and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) exceeds its usefulness. (link)

Wikipedia gives this background for the expression, which matches what I heard years ago, though I don’t have a source for it, and Wikipedia doesn’t cite one for this part:

Because [white elephants] were considered sacred and laws protected them from labor, receiving a gift of a white elephant from a monarch was both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch’s favour, and a curse because the animal had to be kept and could not be put to practical use to offset the cost of maintaining it.

Next we have elephant in the room, meaning an obvious topic that everyone avoids bringing up. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:

The originator of the phrase was Sidney Lewis Wasserman D.S.W., an eminent lecturer at Smith College School for Social Work, USA. He taught there between 1964 and 1967…. His natural flair for teaching and ability to express complex issues through the use of metaphor ensured that his students grasped complex issues with ease. …. He says the elephant in the room description just came out of him, as all his other metaphors [did], and how surprised he was when he heard it repeated back to him latterly in the UK. (link)

If indeed Wasserman did originate the expression, he didn’t do so in the 1960s, since it has been antedated to 1959 by master quotation sleuth Fred Shapiro.

About the only thing these two idioms have in common is the word elephant, but that was enough to pull them together to produce white elephant in the room. Apparently Michael Coleman is not the first one to blend them; the Wikipedia entry notes that elephant in the room is “not to be confused with white elephant“. In the quotation from Coleman, it was the “white elephant” meaning that prevailed, but I wondered how common this particular blend really was, and which meaning usually went with it. When I tried to find out, I found a whole cluster of elephant-related idioms and expressions getting blended.

In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a search for “white elephant” yielded 90 hits. Most of them did have the “expensive item that you can’t unload” meaning, but there were some irrelevant hits. About a dozen were either proper names or references to actual white elephants, or in one case, part of the phrase white elephant tusks. There is also one from 1997 with a general sense of something conspicuous:

As for defense attorney Bob Baker’s argument that it would make no sense for Simpson to use, ” that white elephant of a Ford Bronco to commit a crime, ” Petrocelli sneered, ” You know what his other choices were? A Bentley and a Ferrari.”

And also one usage from 1990 that apparently means an impossibility or hoax:

Oh, they painted him up and pointed him toward the TV monitors and told him when to laugh or cry or make his voice tremble with righteousness, and they had him recite the usual litany about the rights of the rich and the crying need for new condos on Maui, and they prodded him to call the New Moon a hoax, a technological impossibility, a white elephant and a liberalhumanist threat to the integrity of the interplanetary heavens, but all to no avail.

There was also this double hit from 1990:

Of course, it’s like the old party game, where you say to someone at a party, ” Whatever you do, don’t think about a white elephant. ” And of course, from that moment on, a white elephant is all that they can think about.

I’ll have more to say about the don’t think about later. For now it looks like I got about 75 hits for white elephant with the “sensitive yet unavoidable subject” meaning, and two of them were examples of white elephant in the room. Here’s one from 2007:

LA FRAGOLA But both sides agree, race is a factor in this case that’s hard to ignore.
KRIS JANOWSKI, U.N. Spokesman And I think the fact that, you know, it’s the white elephant in the room, the fact that there are, you know, some issues which we need to address, regardless — irregardless of the consequences of the criminal investigation.

The other one is from 2008, with the uncomfortable topic being an actual person who is present in the room, leading to this exchange:

#0:195: All right, let — should we let the white elephant in the room speak for a second, OK?
#1:6416: (Unintelligible)
#0:195: When we were doing the preinterview with all of these three…
#1:6416: Am I a white elephant?
#0:195: No, no, no, no. But you know, clearly you had some problems during the…
#1:6416: Oh, Christ.

I even found white elephant referring to a sensitive subject even without the in the room. Of course, there’s the repetition of white elephant in that last dialogue, but there’s also this catch from 2002:

They’re picking on the rural banks because they have a 10- or 15-minute response time. You know, the 10- or 15-minute response time is a reality, and it’s like a white elephant; sooner or later you have to talk about that time lag.

So far, though, Michael Coleman’s example is the only one I’ve found where white elephant in the room has the “expensive, useless item that you can’t get rid of” meaning instead of the “sensitive yet unavoidable topic” one, even after looking through some more hits for the phrase in Google Books (where the earliest attestation so far is from 2001).

White isn’t the only color of elephant that the metaphor of an elephant in the room has pulled into its orbit. A search for “elephant in the room” yielded 54 hits, two of them being the white elephant in the room attestations already mentioned, and three attestations of pink elephant in the room. I thought that pink elephants were a stereotypical kind of hallucination that a heavy drinker is said to have, canonized in the Dumbo-gets-drunk sequence “Pink Elephants on Parade” in Dumbo, but here they are, muscling their way into the elephant in the room metaphor:

You just don’t say anything. It’s like the pink elephant in the room, you just look the other way, you just ignore it.

All told that’s five out of 55 hits, or about 1/11 of the uses of elephant in the room that got blended with an expression involving elephants of unusual colors in this corpus.

Actually, it’s more complicated. It’s not just that when people refer to a sensitive and avoided topic as an elephant in the room, they’re liable to color the elephant white or pink — just as there was an example of white elephant all by itself having this meaning, there are similar examples with pink elephant all by itself. Here’s one from 1990 that I got when I decided I’d better do a search for “pink elephant”, too:

I mean, President Nixon has pulled a mammoth con job on the American people, culminating today in Yorba Linda, and I think the historians will see beyond that, because you can’t ignore Watergate. It is too big a pink elephant to be ignored.

And one from just this year:

I would argue that the political need not be avoided or repudiated as an aspect of producing scholarship and transmitting research expertise to students. Nor need it be a metaphorical pink elephant that we pretend does not inform academic work.

And just to complete the circle, here’s an example from 1996 of pink elephant being used instead of white elephant to mean an expensive, hard-to-get-rid-of item:

As for plans for the soon-to-be abandoned pink elephant (a.k.a., the Miami Arena), possibilities include a film studio (involving area resident Sylvester Stallone), a bingo parlor that may interest nearby Indian tribes, or a prison.

But the blending of forms and meanings doesn’t stop there. I mentioned that some of the “white elephant” hits were in a context of trying not to think about a white elephant; for example,

Of course, it’s like the old party game, where you say to someone at a party, ” Whatever you do, don’t think about a white elephant. ” And of course, from that moment on, a white elephant is all that they can think about.

What’s all this about not thinking about a white elephant? Of course, you can plug any noun phrase you want into the frame don’t think about a ~. This expression isn’t even an idiom, but a straightforward and compositional imperative sentence (albeit impossible to obey), but still and all, this expression for me happens to be the other situation where you’re likely to hear about pink elephants. I’ve usually heard it as Don’t think about a pink elephant,, and indeed, seven of my 33 hits for “pink elephant(s)” talked about not thinking of them. Here’s one from 1997:

But really, how can you drive such holiday jingles out of your skull? First of all, don’t try not to think about it. ” That’s like telling yourself not to think about a pink elephant. It’s impossible, ” says Jerilyn Ross, MA, a clinical social worker in Washington, DC, who helps patients with obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Actually, this idea of trying not to think of something may have contributed to the infusion of pink into elephant in the room, especially given cases like this one, which blurs the line between trying to forget or not think about a big, obvious topic and trying to ignore it:

Rep. RANDY CUNNINGHAM, (R), California: I’ve heard lawyers talk about this as being the “the jury will please disregard the pink elephant” routine
@3:11476@ Exactly.
Rep. RANDY CUNNINGHAM, (R), California: and that once you draw attention to the pink elephant, do not think about that pink elephant, and all you can do is see that damn pink elephant.

And the blending doesn’t even stop there. Some speakers even mix up elephant in the room with the joke about the {400, 500, 600, 800, 900}-pound gorilla (What does it eat? Whatever it wants!) and end up talking about the 900-pound elephant in the room. As Gerald Cohen observed in a post to the American Dialect Society listserv, “[T]he average weight of the adult female Asian elephant is 6,000 pounds, while the male averages 11,000 pounds. 900 pounds would be downright anorexic.”

As if all that confusion weren’t enough, add to all this the fact that white elephants are actually pink!

UPDATE, Oct. 28, 2008: Now that I’ve thought about it some more, the white elephant in the O. J. Simpson example above is probably not a confusion of the meaning of white elephant, but a rearrangement (whether intentional or accidental) of something like elephant of a white Ford Bronco, with the “conspicuous” meaning coming just from the elephant part.

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8 Responses to “White Elephants in the Room”

  1. hjælmer said

    Two non-linguistic corrections:

    Lazarus wasn’t taken over by Macy’s. Lazarus grew into Federated Department Stores, which bought Macy’s and then changed the name of part of its being to Macy’s.

    The white elephant–Ford Bronco quotation is obviously a reference to the early days of the O.J. Simpson saga, which was, I think, 1998 and not 1977.

  2. Neal said

    Thanks for the corrections. 1977 was a typo for 1997, and has been corrected, as has the Lazarus information.

  3. Dan said

    On the OJ thing, the Ford Bronco in question was actually literally white, and (like any SUV) elephantine, so I’m not sure there was any intended reference to white elephants.

  4. viola said

    Neal,
    This is a neat blog. The origin and evolution of idioms is fascinating. I recently read The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. The first thing Professor Pausch (heh, kind of has a ring to it) addressed is “The Elephant in the Room,” which happened to be pancreatic cancer. I’m sure he would have a few correlations regarding the “white” part of the elephant in relation to his personal fight.

  5. In British English a “white elephant” isn’t costly or valuable at all. It’s a piece of bric-à-brac, an odd cup, say, or an ornament, or an ashtray. In a word association exercise, if someone said ‘white elephant’ to me, I would immediately answer ‘stall’, and what’s more, it would conjure up my childhood where I would frequently help my mother on the ubiquitous white elephant stall at the school or church Christmas fayre, garden party, jumble sale (= sale of second-hand clothes, books, toys etc) or summer fête. See this photo – it sums up what a white elephant stall is:

    http://www.burtonbradstock.org.uk/Recent%20Events/Spring%20Fayre%20300505/white.elephant.full.pic.htm

  6. Neal said

    VL:
    Until you highlighted these differences, I considered your meaning for white elephant and mine to be the same one. Starting with “expensive, hard to maintain, and hard to know what to do with,” the BrE meaning seems to have lost the first two meanings, and shifted “hard to know what to do with” to “good to get rid of”. So I guess they’re pretty different meanings after all.

  7. It looks as if the meaning might be shifting in American English too, if this article (from Arizona) is anything to go by.

    http://www.kvoa.com/Global/story.asp?S=9230916&nav=HMO6HMaY

    In it someone defines a white elephant as “something you have but wish you didn’t” and she says the same thing as the English ladies in the photo I mention in my post above ie “there’s always someone, somewhere who will buy it”.

  8. David W. Green said

    I have always heard it: “Don’t think of a white bear.” Interesting.

    And you’re in central Ohio? I am from Lancaster, just SE of Columbus. Who knew!

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