‘The Elephant in the Room’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on April 12, 2023

Did someone use the phrase  'the elephant in the room,' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

The idiom ‘the elephant in the room’ refers to:

  • A difficult problem or issue that everyone is aware of but no one wants to discuss or acknowledge.

The problem or issue in question might be ignored because bringing it up would be uncomfortable, inconvenient, embarrassing, controversial, inflammatory, or even dangerous.

What Does 'The Elephant in the Room' Mean?

‘The elephant in the room’ is an idiom that refers to a difficult issue or problem that is incredibly obvious but that is ignored for the comfort or convenience of the individuals that are involved.

  • It is commonly used to describe controversial issues, questions, or topics that are large in scope and well-known by everyone but never discussed because it is embarrassing, inflammatory, controversial, or dangerous.

For example:

  • Let’s say that the business you are working at has been losing money for some time, and everyone is aware of this fact but never discusses it. In an honest conversation with a co-worker, you might describe the fact that the business is failing as ‘the elephant in the room.’

Where Does 'The Elephant in the Room' Come From?

Unlike many idioms, the history of ‘the elephant in the room’ as an idiom is fairly clear.

  • The first iteration of the phrase is from the fable written by Ivan Krylov titled “The Inquisitive Man.”

This story is about a man that notices all kinds of small objects in a museum he visits but somehow doesn’t notice the elephant. After this fable, the notion became proverbial.

In the novel Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky, we find the following line:

"Belinsky was just like Krylov's Inquisitive Man, who didn't notice the elephant in the museum...."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase was first recorded on June 20, 1969, in The New York Times:

"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.”

Early Usage of 'The Elephant in the Room'

That being said, it is thought that this idiom was used in the popular vernacular before 1959. Other earlier examples include a piece in the British Journal of Education in 1915, where “Is there an elephant in the classroom?” is presented as a question schoolboys would be able to answer.

  • In an 1882 story by Mark Twain entitled “The Stolen White Elephant,” reference is made to the phrase where detectives try to find an elephant that was exactly where it was supposed to be all along.

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that 'the elephant in the room' is much more commonly used in publications released during and after the 1990s than in previous years.

Examples of 'The Elephant in the Room' In Sentences

How would 'the elephant in the room' be used in a sentence?

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • She has long been the only one brave enough to point out the elephant in the room when there is a topic that everyone is afraid to bring up.”
  • “As an amateur in the industry, he didn’t realize that by bringing up the controversial subject, he was calling out the elephant in the room.”
  • “The celebrity was so famous that even their closest friends and family were afraid to say what they really thought. This created an outcome where their drug use and increasingly erratic behavior became the elephant in the room.”
  • “I want to apologize for apparently being the only one that didn’t see the elephant in the room. I understand why you were all hesitant to say something, but in the future, please do not be afraid to bring up difficult topics that pertain to the health of the business.”
  • There’s a thin line between being a social drinker and an alcoholic. We all need to stop tiptoeing around the elephant in the room and face the fact that Margey has a problem.”
  • The elephant in the room, John, is that you always bite off more than you can chew. Everyone can see it except you, and no one wants to say anything because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.”
  • “I don’t know what the board was thinking with their new selection for CEO. Having him in charge is like having a fox in the hen house, and that’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to admit they see.”
  • “We have to stop being so worried about offending one another that no one has the courage to call out the elephant in the room. We all see what’s wrong here. The question is, what are we going to do about it?”

Final Thoughts About 'The Elephant in the Room'

‘The elephant in the room’ is an idiom that describes something that everyone is aware of but no one is willing to bring up or discuss.

  • This might be because the idea is controversial, difficult, or embarrassing.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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