Of Gorillas and Elephants

As I’ve established, I’m really a descriptivist when it comes to grammar, except in very important matters, where prescriptivism seems to be demanded.  One of these has recently come to my attention.  I speak, of course, of confusion between various metaphorical elephants and gorillas.

So once and for all:

Intimidating, right?

800-pound gorillas are large, scary creatures, capable of imposing their will on those around them.  Thus, they represent an entity with a great deal of influence that tends to throw its weight around (all 800 pounds of it).  Microsoft is a classic 800-pound gorilla.  But 800-pound gorillas don’t just hang out in rooms; that would be silly. “The 800-pound gorilla in the room” – nonsense.



Elephants are what are in rooms, where they are extremely difficult to ignore.  Obviously.  I mean,

Look at everyone trying to ignore it

could you ignore an elephant in the room?  Hence, your standard elephant represents something everyone knows (elephant in the room – hard to miss, given the relative sizes of elephants and rooms), but isn’t talking about (that part of the metaphor is slightly less clear).




This would just be a horrible gift

But a white elephant, now yeah, you’d know it was there, but how could you not talk about it?  (“Hey man, I see your elephant is white.  That’s weird, huh?”).  Using a white elephant in the room to represent something hard to ignore, that would just be gilding the lily (I’ll talk about gilded lillies later).  No no, a white elephant represents something that is valuable, in theory, but expensive to maintain, and impossible to get rid of, and here we look to history for our metaphors, since the kings of Siam used to give them to obnoxious courtiers as a jerky gift, or so it is said.

We also need to look to history for the good old “seeing the elephant”, which is simply a metaphor for extreme excitement, since back in the day it was pretty unusual to see an elephant (unless it was right there in the room with you for some reason, of course).  Nowadays of course, you can barely walk down the street without tripping over one, so it is a pretty uncommon expression, and hardly ever confused with elephants in rooms, or gorillas, or whatnot.  I include it only for the sake of completeness.

Pink elephants go beyond the merely unusual, of course, to the impossible, and are just what you see when you’re drunk.  Not so much a

See? Crazy

metaphor as a phantasm, I guess.

So now that that’s settled, I hope to hear no more about “white elephants in the room” or, saints preserve us “800-pound gorillas in the room” or so on.


~ by smwilliams on April 10, 2012.