see the elephant

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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.

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
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

AMERICAN
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
Collins COBUILD Idioms Dictionary, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2012

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
Farlex Partner Idioms Dictionary © Farlex 2017

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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