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Sunday, May 23, 2010

50 Ways to See an Elephant, Part II

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 I
50 Ways to See an Elephant, Part III

As explained in my last post, "seeing the elephant" denotes the desire to seek out amazing sights. Some--such as professional expats--may do that by traveling to the far corners of the world. Others will stay at home but take advantage if the far corners of the world come to visit them: e.g., the New England farmer who was determined not to miss the circus in a nearby town as he was full of curiosity about the elephant.

A modern equivalent of the elephant-obsessed farmer could be devotees of the Dalai Lama, many of whom sold their shirts to attend his teachings and/or public talk at Radio City Music Hall this week-end, presumably in hopes of being awestruck by his knowledge and spirituality. (He will teach the writings of 2nd-century philosopher Nagarjuna and of the 8th-century Indian saint Shantideva, no less...)

The farmer, of course, collided with the circus train, led by the elephant. He was knocked unconscious, his wagon destroyed, his horse killed. Thus the expression "seeing the elephant" often carries the connotation of "at a price." The Dalai Lama event likewise exacts a price--quite literally and perhaps even figuratively: will listening to His Holiness necessarily bring enlightenment? A case of plus ça change...

But I digress. In a blog devoted to elephant-spotting and the impact that such (mis)adventures have on one's life, three 19th-century uses of the term deserve special mention:
1) To describe the experience of volunteering for the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-48) or heading West to participate in the California Gold Rush (1848-55). Mexican War volunteers and gold-hungry "Forty-Niners" referred to their Western trials and adventures in terms of "going to see the elephant." Those turning back claimed they had seen the "elephant's tracks" or the "elephant's tail," and confessed they'd seen more than enough of the animal. Was it worth the trials, tribulations and hardship, just to have seen the elephant?

Newspapers and periodicals of the 1840s sometimes carried cartoons depicting an elephant pursued by miners, or of miners dying in his howdah.

G.W. Kendall, in his Narrative of the Texan Santa Fé Expedition (1844), reported:
There is a cant expression, “I’ve seen the elephant” in very common use in Texas. [...] The meaning of the expression I will explain. When a man is disappointed in any thing he undertakes, when he has seen enough, when he gets sick and tired of any job he may have set himself about, he has “seen the elephant.”
But for most gold rushers and other Western pioneers, it seems likely that the expression carried a dual meaning. It symbolized both the high cost of their endeavor--the myriad possibilities for misfortune on the journey or in California--and, like the farmer's circus elephant, an exotic sight, and unequaled experience, the adventure of a lifetime.

2) To describe the experience of seeing combat for the first time, coming into widespread currency during the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). In their letters and diaries, Civil War soldiers would often write: "I've seen the elephant," "I'm off to see the elephant," or "Today, we will see the elephant." By this time, the term had acquired a specialized military sense, with the brutal loss of innocence that seeing action entails. Though the term is now considered old fashioned, it was still used on occasion during the Vietnam War, and at least one blogger has suggested reviving the term to help explain the disconnect felt by the returning veterans from the war in Iraq. "Seen the elephant," that blogger writes, conveys the Iraqi War veterans' feeling of "You can't understand unless you were there" as well as their sense that, though nothing has changed here at home, they are so different inside.

3) To describe extensive world travels--not dissimilar from the modern-day expression "Been there, done that, got the tee shirt." According to Tom Dalzell, a slang expert in Berkeley, by the mid-1800s, "seen the elephant" was used to express supreme indifference, a clip of: "I've been around the world and seen something as exotic as an elephant; therefore, what you say does not impress me."

To sum up, this blog will explore "seeing the elephant" in its various phases:
  • the thrill and sense of wonder that comes from seeking out adventure, whether within one's own country or abroad;
  • the way that foreign travel and exotic sights can fuel the imagination;
  • the sense of disappointment and disillusionment that such adventures can also bring: what kind of toll does that process take on the psyche?; and
  • the feeling of disconnect (and superiority) when arriving back home: are there constructive ways to put one's new perspectives to use?

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

Question: Can you suggest additional themes this blog should explore?


Anonymous said...

I would have to add that I first heard this expression ("seen the elephant") in my first tour in Viet Nam. It was used to describe the experience of being in a situation that brought one very close to one's own death.

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