seen the elephant

see the elephant

1. To gain 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
Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. © 2015 Farlex, Inc, all rights reserved.

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
The Dictionary of Clichés by Christine Ammer Copyright © 2013 by Christine Ammer
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References in classic literature ?
There are great cleared flat places hidden away in the forests that are called elephants' ball-rooms, but even these are only found by accident, and no man has ever seen the elephants dance.
In Zambia, he observed that the commitment to conservation had seen the elephant numbers rise, but encouraged his colleagues in the region to work hard in fighting poaching and illegal wildlife trade.
However, a servicemember who has "seen the elephant" and served in a war is justly entitled to be called a "War Veteran," and to be a "Peacekeeping Veteran" is no less honourable.
The conservation-conscious actress recalled the first time she'd seen the elephant, seven years ago.
As McPherson cites, "once they had seen the elephant, few Civil War soldiers were eager to see it again.
Inside the Jack Douglass Saloon, lounging against the long mahogany bar, a flirty barmaid crooks her index finger at a fellow and coos, "You haven't seen the elephant till you've spent the night with one of Madam Arabella's girls." Octavia Brown gasps in shock, mutters "Floozies!" - and all the visitors laugh.
"The best thing was we were walking up the hill and all the crew had seen the elephant before me and they were all being dead weird and then, all of a sudden, I looked and there it was.
Rangers have not seen the elephant, but plan to drive it back into the forest, Ambu said.
Models like his Raven and Crowfoot which have 'seen the elephant' while being tested during combat operations in Afghanistan.
To use an American term, Barney has "seen the elephant" and served with distinction with the Queen's Own Rifles as an NCO and later as a Lieutenant, before being seriously wounded in Normandy in 1944.
The result is combat related through the eyes of men and women who have seen the elephant and others close to them, individuals who make known their doubts regarding the conduct, purpose, and chances of success in the two ongoing contingencies.
Schlobach has seen the elephants in action and reports they are majestic and agile.