Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Financial, Encyclopedia, Wikipedia.
Related to elephant: Elephant man
Like this video? Subscribe to our free daily email and get a new idiom video every day!

elephant in the corner

An obvious truth or fact, especially one regarded as embarrassing or undesirable, that is being intentionally ignored or left unaddressed. We all sat sipping our tea quietly, no one wanting to bring up the elephant in the corner about Joel's expulsion from college. The incident has remained something of an elephant in the corner within our family.
See also: corner, elephant

elephant in the room

An obvious truth or fact, especially one regarded as embarrassing or undesirable, that is being intentionally ignored or left unaddressed. We all sat sipping our tea quietly, no one wanting to bring up the elephant in the room about Joel's expulsion from college. The incident has remained something of an elephant in the room within our family.
See also: elephant, room

an elephant never forgets

One remembers everything. A play on the idea that elephants have great memories. I don't think we can pick up where we were before you betrayed me because an elephant never forgets! I would be hesitant to cross him—he's a dangerous man, and an elephant never forgets.
See also: elephant, forget, never

elephant ear

1. Any of several varieties of plants that have large, heart-shaped leaves. A: "Look at those enormous leaves!" B: "Oh wow! I guess that's an elephant ear."
2. A puff pastry that is shaped like a palm leaf. Also known as a "palmier." I know I should be eating better, but I couldn't resist getting an elephant ear at the bakery for breakfast.
See also: ear, elephant

elephant ears

Metal discs on the outside of a missile or rocket. The elephant ears on the rocket need to be repaired.
See also: ear, elephant


slang Drunk. The term comes from rhyming slang, in which "elephants" is short for "elephant's trunk," which rhymes with "drunk." Primarily heard in UK. Do you remember last night at the pub at all, or were you totally elephants?
See also: elephant

elephant's trunk

slang Drunk. The phrase comes from rhyming slang in which "elephant's trunk" rhymes with "drunk." Primarily heard in UK. Do you remember last night at the pub at all, or were you elephant's trunk?
See also: trunk

have a memory like an elephant

To have an exceptional memory. A play on the idea that elephants have great memories. Mom has a memory like an elephant, so ask her what Joe's phone number is.
See also: elephant, have, like, memory

kill a fly with an elephant gun

To take excessive, overcomplicated, or extravagant means or force to accomplish something relatively minor or simple. With this new system of issuing licenses, the government is trying to kill a fly with an elephant gun. Four separate departments now handle each stage of an application, when a single department could easily process applications from start to finish. Look, you've got some money issues, sure, but filing for bankruptcy would be killing a fly with an elephant gun.
See also: elephant, fly, gun, kill

see pink elephants

To hallucinate or see things incorrectly due to acute alcohol intoxication or withdrawal. The phrase became especially popularized by the 1941 Disney animated film Dumbo, in which the title character accidentally becomes drunk and sees a parade of pink elephant hallucinations. My dad said that he saw pink elephants for a while after he gave up drinking. When I started seeing pink elephants, I knew I had to stop drinking so much.
See also: elephant, pink, see

see the elephant

1. Gaining true and valuable life experience of the world, whether negative or positive. Primarily heard in US. I've never understood those people who go to college, get jobs, and get married in the same town where they grew up—surely you'd want to get out and see the elephant a bit, no? I've seen the elephant in my day, kid, so don't talk to me about making sacrifices or having a hard life.
2. To experience military combat. Primarily heard in US. You have images of seeing the elephant the moment you land on foreign shores, but you actually spend most of your time sitting around at the base. The war deprived the world of millions of young men, many of whom were seeing the elephant for the very first time.
See also: elephant, see

white elephant

1. An expensive item that is troublesome or useless. The term comes from a story about the king of Siam, who was said to have given an albino elephant, considered sacred, to a member of the court whom he disliked, knowing that taking care of the animal would exhaust the person's fortune. At first, Eve was excited to inherit the farm, but it soon proved to be a white elephant she couldn't afford.
2. A fundraiser in which unwanted items have been donated for sale. The church is having a white elephant sale to raise funds for the new vestibule. I'm excited to see what kind of treasures people bring from their garages!
3. A gift exchange in which participants bring unwanted items that can then be chosen and swapped, depending on the particular rules of the gathering. A: "What's with the ugly vase?" B: "We had a white elephant at work, and this is what I ended up with. I'll probably bring it next year."
See also: elephant, white
Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. © 2015 Farlex, Inc, all rights reserved.

seeing pink elephants

 and seeing pink spiders; Seeing snakes
intoxicated; recovering from a drinking bout; having the delirium tremens. When I got to the point of seeing pink elephants, I knew that something had to be done. The old one who's shakinghe's probably seeing snakes.
See also: elephant, pink, seeing

white elephant

something that is large and unwieldy and is either a nuisance or expensive to keep up. Bob's father-in-law has given him an old Rolls Royce, but it's a real white elephant. He has no place to park it and can't afford the gas for it. Those antique vases Aunt Mary gave me are white elephants. They're ugly and I have no place to put them.
See also: elephant, white
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

see the elephant

Experience more than one wants to, learn a hard lesson; also, see combat, especially for the first time. For example, After the expedition lost two climbers in an avalanche, they had seen the elephant and turned back , or On his first tour of duty he saw the elephant. This slangy expression, first recorded in 1835, alludes to having seen all the sights one can see, including that rare beast, and returning home unimpressed or disappointed.
See also: elephant, see

white elephant

An unwanted or useless item, as in The cottage at the lake had become a real white elephant-too run down to sell, yet costly to keep up , or Grandma's ornate silver is a white elephant; no one wants it but it's too valuable to discard . This expression comes from a legendary former Siamese custom whereby an albino elephant, considered sacred, could only be owned by the king. The king would bestow such an animal on a subject with whom he was displeased and wait until the high cost of feeding the animal, which could not be slaughtered, ruined the owner. The story was told in England in the 1600s, and in the 1800s the term began to be used figuratively.
See also: elephant, white
The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Copyright © 2003, 1997 by The Christine Ammer 1992 Trust. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

see the elephant

If you see the elephant, you experience something very extreme, especially war. We marched all day — we were going to see the elephant at last.
See also: elephant, see

a white elephant

COMMON If you describe something such as a new building or project as a white elephant, you mean that it has cost a lot of money but is completely useless. The whole complex was a white elephant, constructed at enormous expense but never used. After 17 years under construction, the factory is still only partly built and is far from being operational. It is in fact, a great white elephant. Note: There is a story that the Kings of Siam used to give white elephants, which are very rare, to courtiers who they did not like. The animals cost so much to keep that their owners spent all their money on them and became very poor.
See also: elephant, white
Collins COBUILD Idioms Dictionary, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2012

the elephant in the corner

an embarrassing or awkward topic that everyone is aware of but no one wishes to discuss. An alternative formulation is the elephant in the room .
2003 CNN Of course, the elephant in the corner for all these developments is Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority.
See also: corner, elephant

see the elephant

see the world; get experience of life. US
An elephant is used here to symbolize or typify something which is extremely remarkable or exotic.
1994 Fighting Firearms These men have all seen the elephant and represent a typical cross-section of the…staff in general.
See also: elephant, see

a white elephant

a possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of.
In former times, the rare albino elephant was regarded as holy. It was highly prized by the kings of Siam (now Thailand) and its upkeep was extremely expensive. It was apparently the practice for a king of Siam to give one of the elephants to a courtier they disliked: the unfortunate recipient would usually be financially ruined by the attempt to maintain the animal.
See also: elephant, white
Farlex Partner Idioms Dictionary © Farlex 2017

the ˌelephant in the ˈroom

a serious problem that everyone is aware of but which they ignore and choose not to mention: The growing budget deficit is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.
See also: elephant, room

see pink ˈelephants

(informal) see things that are not really there, because you are drunk
See also: elephant, pink, see

a white ˈelephant

a thing that is useless and no longer needed, although it may have cost a lot of money: That theatre is a real white elephant. It cost millions to build and nobody ever goes there.This comes from the story that in Siam (now Thailand), the king would give a white elephant as a present to somebody that he did not like. That person would have to spend all their money on looking after the rare animal.
See also: elephant, white
Farlex Partner Idioms Dictionary © Farlex 2017

pink elephants

and pink spiders
1. n. the delirium tremens. He was shaking something awful from the pink spiders.
2. n. hallucinatory creatures seen during the delirium tremens. (see also seeing pink elephants.) He said pink elephants were trying to kill him. He’s really drunk.
See also: elephant, pink

seeing pink elephants

and seeing pink spiders and seeing snakes
tv. alcohol intoxicated; recovering from a drinking bout; having the delirium tremens. When I got to the point of seeing pink elephants, I knew that something had to be done. He’s screaming something about seeing pink spiders, and he wants a drink.
See also: elephant, pink, seeing

white elephant

n. a useless or unwanted object. (From the notion that an extremely valuable gift that requires great expense for its care and protection is an unwanted gift.) Take all those white elephants to the flea market.
See also: elephant, white
McGraw-Hill's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions Copyright © 2006 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

elephant in the room

A matter or problem that is obvious or of great importance but that is not discussed openly.
See also: elephant, room
American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

elephant in the room, an

An extremely obvious circumstance that can hardly be overlooked. Jo Bannister used it in Liars All (2009), “She hadn’t told Paddy how serious Jonathan’s condition was . . . But it was like an elephant in the drawing room; Paddy didn’t need pointing it out to know it was there.” And Lindsay Coates’s column about Haiti’s lack of land rights slowing recovery from the devastating earthquake was headlined: “Land Tenure: Haiti’s Elephant in the Room” (Huffington Post, July 21, 2010). See also seen the elephant.
See also: elephant

seen the elephant

To have seen or experienced as much as one can endure. This term, which dates from the first half of the 1800s, uses “elephant” in the sense of a remarkable or surprising sight, practice, or the like. In the military, the phrase was used during the Mexican War of the 1840s to indicate having seen combat for the first time. In civilian life, the television show Gunsmoke (1974) had it: “I’ve had a checkered life. You might say I’ve seen the elephant.” See also elephant in the room.
See also: elephant, seen

white elephant, a

An unwanted possession that is hard to get rid of but too valuable to throw away. The term comes from a widely told story of an ancient Siamese custom whereby only the king could own an albino elephant, which therefore was considered sacred. When the king was displeased with a courtier, he would give him such a white elephant and wait until the high costs of feeding the beast—being sacred, it could not be killed—caused the man to be ruined. The custom became known in England in the seventeenth century, and by the nineteenth century the term had been transferred to other unwanted items. G. E. Jewsbury wrote, “His services are like so many white elephants of which nobody can make use, and yet that drain one’s gratitude” (letter, 1851).
See also: white
The Dictionary of Clichés by Christine Ammer Copyright © 2013 by Christine Ammer

white elephant

An expensive but useless possession. Albino elephants are extremely rare, and any born in Siam became the property of the king. These favored specimens were not allowed to be worked or to be killed without the royal permission. As the story goes, the king often perversely gave a white elephant to a courtier who had fallen out of favor, just so the nobleman would spend a small fortune maintaining the useless gift for the rest of its life. Rummage sales in which people donate items for which they (and possibly no one else) have no use are often called “white elephant sales.”
See also: elephant, white
Endangered Phrases by Steven D. Price Copyright © 2011 by Steven D. Price
See also:
References in classic literature ?
I am getting old, and I do not love wild elephants. Give me brick elephant lines, one stall to each elephant, and big stumps to tie them to safely, and flat, broad roads to exercise upon, instead of this come-and-go camping.
What Little Toomai liked was to scramble up bridle paths that only an elephant could take; the dip into the valley below; the glimpses of the wild elephants browsing miles away; the rush of the frightened pig and peacock under Kala Nag's feet; the blinding warm rains, when all the hills and valleys smoked; the beautiful misty mornings when nobody knew where they would camp that night; the steady, cautious drive of the wild elephants, and the mad rush and blaze and hullabaloo of the last night's drive, when the elephants poured into the stockade like boulders in a landslide, found that they could not get out, and flung themselves at the heavy posts only to be driven back by yells and flaring torches and volleys of blank cartridge.
"He shall have the finest thrashing ever elephant received.
Up jumped Good, burning for slaughter, and thinking, perhaps, that it was as easy to kill elephant as he had found it to shoot giraffe, but I caught him by the arm and pulled him down.
Then they came upon vast tracts extending to the horizon, with jungles inhabited by snakes and tigers, which fled at the noise of the train; succeeded by forests penetrated by the railway, and still haunted by elephants which, with pensive eyes, gazed at the train as it passed.
The elephant halted, lifted his trunk, and resumed his run toward the wood with all his speed; he shook his huge head, and the blood began to gush from his wounds.
For an instant Tantor, the elephant, paused with upraised trunk and tail, with great ears up-pricked, and then he swung on along the trail at a rapid, shuffling pace--straight toward the covered pit with its sharpened stakes upstanding in the ground.
Then, to his astonishment, a man slid to the ground from the elephant's back.
And so it happened that before the elephant realized that his new enemy had leaped from his path Tarzan had driven his iron-shod spear from behind the massive shoulder straight into the fierce heart, and the colossal pachyderm had toppled to his death at the feet of the ape-man.
At last, when the competition had been prolonged for some time, the elephant captain and lady desisted from the race; and the hammer coming down, the auctioneer said:--"Mr.
Momentarily baffled here, the huge elephant wheeled and bore down upon the hapless priests who had now scattered, terror-stricken, in every direction.
It was a bold, not to say preposterous, idea to conceive even antediluvian trees, with branches strong enough to bear animals as large as elephants. Professor Owen, with far more probability, believes that, instead of climbing on the trees, they pulled the branches down to them, and tore up the smaller ones by the roots, and so fed on the leaves.
"What of the great, the walled city--the city of a hundred elephants and twenty thousand horses, and cattle past counting--the city of the King of Twenty Kings?
I reckoned he believed in the A-rabs and the elephants, but as for me I think different.
In one room, which looked like a lady's sitting-room, the hangings were all embroidered velvet, and in a cabinet were about a hundred little elephants made of ivory.