The domestic elephant

I’ve long been bemused by the function of the elephant in the popular phrase “the elephant in the living room”. When it was invented by the recovery movement — I think in the 1980’s — it clearly was supposed to be both a shocking and ridiculous image. Families, it was saying, often deal with huge and obvious problems, such as addiction or abuse, by developing elaborate mechanisms for ignoring the very existence of the problem, that to an outsider seem both confounding and absurd. It’s as though you had an elephant in your living room, but acted as though you could pretend it wasn’t there.

The weird thing about the later career of the expression is that it has come to be an everyday expression — “That’s the elephant in the living room, isn’t it?” — as though it were perfectly ordinary to have such a thing; indeed, as though every living room has its elephants. I thought of this when I encountered an early use of elephants in the domestic setting, but with a different thrust. In Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain in the late 1970’s, Seasons in the Sun, there is a quote from Labour’s Welsh Secretary John Morris, acknowledging defeat in the devolution referendum:

If you see an elephant on your doorstep, you know what it is.

(The second episode of the new season of the BBC’s Sherlock made excellent comic use of the phrase, playing on its strange ubiquity. Giving a wedding toast to Watson, Sherlock reels off a list of some of their cases, concluding with “And then there’s the elephant in the living room.” For a moment it sounds like he’s switching modes, from the CV to something more personal, but then we have a split-second flashback to the detective encountering a real elephant in a real living room, and you remember that “The Elephant in the Living Room” does sound kind of like the title of a Conan Doyle story.)

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