White, Pink or Purple Pachyderms?
The elephant has inspired some interesting idioms in English and French. Most English speakers know the expression a white elephant, meaning an undesirable possession that is “jumbo” size; for example, Montréal’s Olympic Stadium has often been called a white elephant. Here are some more examples of elephant idioms that are expressive, colourful … and sometimes confused!
- Un éléphant dans une boutique / dans un magasin de porcelaine
In English, a clumsy person may be compared to a bull in a china shop; but in French, an elephant rather than a bull breaks things when loose in a china shop. The reference to a bull is not very appropriate because, according to MythBusters, a bull in a china shop is surprisingly nimble. Perhaps the French are right. MythBusters should conduct the same test with an elephant to find out what happens.
- Let’s address the elephant in the room – Parlons de l’éléphant
“The elephant in the room” refers to an issue that observers are trying to avoid. This expression may be translated by l’éléphant dans la pièce / la salle; le problème dont on ne parle pas; or le sujet tabou.
- One delegate called the topic of climate change “the elephant in the room.” – Un délégué a qualifié le thème du changement climatique « d’éléphant dans la pièce ».
- Pink elephant – éléphant rose
Made popular in the 1950s, the expression pink elephant is a metaphor for the hallucinations of an inebriated person.
Beware of stray elephants…
Unfortunately, elephants sometimes wander. The following sentences from the Internet are examples of what I would call “mixed-up” metaphors:
- It is the famous elephant in the room that everybody avoids talking about. – C’est le fameux éléphant dans la boutique de porcelaine: tout le monde évite d’en parler.
(Incorrect translation; an elephant that wanders into a china shop won’t be ignored for very long.)
- It would be like not noticing a three-tonne pink elephant in the middle of the living room. – Ce serait comme ne pas voir un éléphant rose de trois tonnes en plein milieu du salon.
(Pink elephants, being too hard to ignore, should be banned from the living room.)
And, finally, the following sentence turned up in a concordancer:
- That’s the purple elephant in the room – C’est l’éléphant dans le salon dont personne ne veut parler.
(The translator corrected the sentence in the French version, omitting the unusual colour, since purple elephants are even harder to ignore than pink ones.)
N.B. The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s. Thanks to Sheila Ethier.
By Barbara McClintock, C. Tr.