Elephants

Today’s Zippy, set not in a diner but at a carwash:

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Given the Space Needle in the background, the cartoon is clearly set in Seattle. And in fact Elephant Car Wash locations are all over the area. A representation in a Michael Birawer canvas painting:

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The title alludes to the idiom the elephant in the room.

Wikipedia has an unusually wide-ranging article on elephant allusions, starting with the OED:

“Elephant in the room” is an English metaphorical idiom for an obvious truth that is either being ignored or going unaddressed. The idiomatic expression also applies to an obvious problem or risk no one wants to discuss.

It is based on the idea that an elephant in a room would be impossible to overlook; thus, people in the room who pretend the elephant is not there have chosen to avoid dealing with the looming big issue.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first recorded use of the phrase, as a simile, as The New York Times on June 20, 1959: “Financing schools has become a problem about equal to having an elephant in the living room. It’s so big you just can’t ignore it.”

This idiomatic expression may have been in general use much earlier than 1959. For example, the phrase appears 44 years earlier in the pages of a British journal in 1915 [Journal of education, Vol. 37, p. 288]. The sentence was presented as a trivial illustration of a question British schoolboys would be able to answer, e.g., “Is there an elephant in the class-room?”

The first widely disseminated conceptual reference was a story written by Mark Twain in 1882, “The Stolen White Elephant”, which slyly dissects the inept, far-ranging activities of detectives trying to find an elephant that was right on the spot after all. This may have been the reference in the legal opinion of United States v. Leviton, 193 F. 2d 848 (2nd Circuit, 1951), makes reference in its opinion, “As I have elsewhere observed, it is like the Mark Twain story of the little boy who was told to stand in a corner and not to think of a white elephant.”

A slightly different version of the phrase was used before this, with George Berkeley [“On the nature and elements of the external world: or Universal immaterialism fully explained and newly demonstrated by Thomas Collyns Simon”, 1862],talking of whether or not there is “an invisible elephant in the room” in his debates with scientists.

In 1935, comedian Jimmy Durante starred on Broadway in the Billy Rose Broadway musical Jumbo, in which a police officer stops him while leading a live elephant and asks, “What are you doing with that elephant?” Durante’s reply, “What elephant?” was a regular show-stopper. Durante reprises the piece in the 1962 film version of the play, Billy Rose’s Jumbo.

One Response to “Elephants”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Now you mention it, I remember seeing one of those car washes the last time I was in Seattle (from a car, but not one that was getting washed). I remarked that having the elephant wash itself didn’t really convey the idea of a car wash, to which the driver of the car (GVR, for those who know him) replied, “I think you’re overthinking this, Robert.”

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