According to our newspaper databases, The Times used the phrase only five times between 1995 and 2002 - but has hit the elephant button 62 times since 2003. The Sunday Times? A tenfold increase, from four to 41.
The Independent? Fifteenfold up. Three to 45. And The Guardian. One hundred and twelve times as many - albeit starting from the base of one appearance only before 2003.
I can’t say why British usage has increased so much (probably something to do with memes and tipping points and journalistic laziness – I bet you’d find similar figures for ‘quantum leap’ and ‘black hole’, as well as for ‘double whammy’ after 1992 and ‘fit for purpose’ in the last couple of years).
But, frankly, ‘the elephant in the room’ is a rotten metaphor. It just doesn’t work.
Michael Quinion, on his fine World Wide Words website, explains:
It refers to some a problem or controversial issue that’s obviously present but which everyone ignores or avoids mentioning, usually because it’s politically or socially embarrassing.
Marcel Berlins commented that he had traced the expression to a 1989 BBC television film whose director had said he had taken it from the Belfast writer Bernard MacLaverty. The latter had described the situation in Northern Ireland as like “having an elephant in your living room”, though with the sense of something difficult in your life that you got accustomed to and tried your best to ignore, as people in Northern Ireland did with the Troubles.
Indeed. But: think for a moment about actually having an elephant in your living room. Is there any credible reaction to this scenario other than hysteria? Why, exactly, would you find an elephant there and then let it stay? How on Earth could you possibly grow accustomed to its being there?
Quinion tries to trace the phrase’s origin, a search that suggests the phrase was originally a sensible metaphor:
The OED’s entry also notes an example from the New York Times of June 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.” …
The idea seems to have been around for quite some time before it became common or took on its modern sense, most probably being reinvented from time to time by writers seeking a vigorous image.
The 1959 use makes excellent sense: you just can’t ignore an elephant in the room.
But the phrase has become corrupted into something implausible, unapt, and not fit for purpose (dammit! Sorry). We need a better phrase for something that’s problematic but too awkward to mention. So, as a public service, I have invented a new metaphor – one that, I hope, provides a “vigorous image”.
A group of you are meeting the Queen. You are in a smallish ill-ventilated room with her, shaking hands and making such polite small talk as one does with a monarch. Then she lets one rip. She makes no reaction, and not does her attendant. Then, another. It really stinks. And again. But dare you mention this royal flatulence? Of course not.
Thus: ‘it’s like a royal fart’.
Happy to help.