View Full Version : “see the elephant”?
March 27, 2002, 01:48 AM
I have been hearing this phrase for years, and have long since figured out from context that it means to be involved in a deadly force situation. But I'm still a little confused as to its actual meaning and origin. Can anyone shead any light on this. I kinda have this thing for understanding the origonal conotation and origin of comon phrases...some of the phrases we use on a daily basis without even thinking about have some pretty strage origonal meanings.
March 27, 2002, 10:49 AM
iirc and this is from memory, I hope...
Two centuries ago, most of the population was rural & we still had traveling circuses. It was fairly big deal when the circus came to the nearest town.
(again, this is from memory)
Farm boys would head to town to see the circus, the elephant & maybe, possibly other activities of young men.
That gave rise to the phrase "I have seen the elephant", which over time took on it's current meaning.
March 27, 2002, 12:59 PM
What Erick sez, with emphasis on the "other activities." But I like that "other" stuff so very much.:D
March 27, 2002, 01:23 PM
The source is apocryphal, but it sounds like something Hemingway would have said on one of his African safaris.
Meaning: When you see the elephant charging at you (you'd better be looking down the barrel).
March 27, 2002, 01:57 PM
It was in common use during the Civil War, so it predates Hemingway. I've always heard the Circus explanation, but you never know with these things.
March 27, 2002, 02:03 PM
Maby as far back as some field commander who had just been the recipient of the wrath of Hannibal ???
March 27, 2002, 02:47 PM
Or maybe this?: http://www.kheper.auz.com/realities/blind_men_and_elephant/Buddhist.html
March 27, 2002, 03:39 PM
Sam, you mean Scipio Africanus at Zama (Yikes)? That just one reason why I carry a trumpet around.:D
March 27, 2002, 04:01 PM
To see the elephant comes from around the time of the Civil War and is based on the fact that the Bailey Circus used to set up south of Washington DC in an area that is now called Bailleys Crossroads.
The troops that were stationed around Washington would go to the circus where many of them saw an elephant for the first time. (Farms don't have many elephants). Some of the troops also went to war where they came to call battle as "going to see the elephant".
The term was common in the Army but I don't know if it is still in use.
March 27, 2002, 04:22 PM
I believe this term was used in both the book and the movie 'The Red Badge of Courage' which triggered it's one again common usage.
March 27, 2002, 09:01 PM
IIRC, in Grossman's book, On Killing, he mentioned that during the Civil War "seeing the elephant" was used to describe experiencing combat for the first time.
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