Recent Posts

Friday, May 21, 2010

50 Ways to See an Elephant, Part I

NOTE: This post is part of a three-part series exploring the etymology of the "seen the elephant" expression. See also:
50 Ways to See an Elephant, Part II
50 Ways to See an Elephant, Part III

I saw a front porch swing, heard a diamond ring,
I saw a polka-dot railroad tie.
But I think I will have seen everything
when I see an elephant fly.
Dumbo Music by Oliver Wallace; Lyrics by Ned Washington
So what's so special about seeing an elephant, let alone seeing one fly? In this blog, "seeing the elephant" is a metaphor for the exotic and strange things one sees when one undertakes to see the world. It's an especially apt metaphor for long-term expats, as I once was. We are the types of people who believe the grass is greener and just have to see for ourselves. Otherwise, our curiosity will never be satisfied...

No one knows the precise origins of the phrase. Some say it dates back to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who after hearing stories from African traders of an enormous animal that could uproot living trees, became obsessed with obtaining one for himself. Perhaps he imagined training it to clear paths throughout his heavily forested empire? Eventually, an elephant was obtained in Baghdad and brought by land and sea to the Emperor's seat. Named Abul Abbas, the animal created a tremendous stir in the Frankish world. Stories spread of how it would pull down its stone stable yet gently would eat from its royal master's hand. When the beast was paraded during festivals and celebrations, peasants, who had seldom if ever left their homes before, traveled miles to "see the elephant."

Peak usage of the English-language phrase occurred in the United States during the 19th century. Americans may have adapted the British phrase "seen the lions" to "seen the elephant." Why an elephant and not lions? Maybe for completely literal reasons. When British travelers said that they'd seen the lions, they were referring to lions that were kept in the Tower of London and were an early tourist attraction. A popular entertainment for Americans in the early 19th century was the traveling circus--in which the elephant was the top attraction, and often the last act (thus "seeing the elephant" meant you had seen the entire show).

Interestingly, the phrase picked up ironic overtones soon after it was coined. A New England tale tells of the farmer who upon learning of the arrival of the circus in a nearby town, was determined to attend to see the wild beast that was stranger and bigger than any animal native to North America. He set out early in his wagon to make the first performance. Upon reaching a crossroads where vision was obscured by a tall hedgerow, the farmer urged his horse into the intersection. At that same moment the circus train, led by the elephant, reached the crossroad from a different direction. The resulting collision smashed the wagon to splinters, killed the horse, and knocked the farmer unconscious. The circus train passed on as though nothing had happened.

Awakening after several hours, the farmer surveyed the destruction and stated dryly, "Well, at least I've seen the elephant."

SEE ALSO the cornerstone series defining the blog's main themes:
#1: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" … Encyclopedic version
#1a: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" ... Reader's Digest, Twitter, Movie Trailer, and Crib Notes versions
#2: How to Recognize at a Glance Someone Who Has Seen an "Elephant" ... Meet Eddie Expat
#3: Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed? The Repatriation Challenge ... Meet Ramona Repat


Anonymous said...

Very entertaining! Look forward to reading more of your posts.

Post a Comment