Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 64: Animal Farm

Today we're exploring a veritable carnival of idiomatic expressions. In spoken and written English people often use metaphors to create more colorful sentences. Two idioms in particular often get confused: The elephant in the room and the 800 pound gorilla.

First, a quick definition of the term idiom: an idiom is a term or phrase whose meaning cannot be deduced from the literal definitions and arrangements of its parts, but refers instead to a figurative meaning known only through common use. Or, as H.W. Fowler once wrote, "An idiomatic expression is one that is natural for a normal Englishman to say or write."

So when someone says:
You got your ducks in a row?

He or she is really asking if you're ready, not if you organized your water fowl.

Since idioms are typically localized by culture and language, they can often be confusing outside of that context. Another possible reason for confusion lies in the fact that many idioms draw on similar imagery to make their point — in this case, two very large mammals.

Let's clarify the meaning of the two expressions at hand. According to the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 800 pound gorilla means "one that is dominating or uncontrollable because of great size or power."

This phrase is common in headlines when referring to an established business, or to a market where a company faces little competition.
Apple is the 800-pound gorilla of the portable MP3 player market

According to author Michael Quinion, the elephant in the room refers to some problem or controversial issue that's obviously present but which everyone ignores or avoids mentioning, usually because it's politically or socially embarrassing.

He's a diabetic and his blood sugar is through the roof. The elephant in the room is that no one will confront his painful addiction to Gummi Bears.

Somewhat related to this is the saying about being a bull in a china shop — which basically means approaching a situation with little or no tact or care. One can easily imagine a bull browsing fine china causing quite a stir.

When speaking or writing, clarity is always paramount. The key to using idioms effectively is to know your audience. If you think your audience will enjoy the metaphor or the humor of idiomatic expressions, by all means, use them. But if you think they might be unaware or easily confused by colloquial sayings or idioms, perhaps it's best to stick with a more literal explanation of the situation.

Sources: Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler; The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White; Michael Quinion's Web site: WorldWideWords.org.

Music from this Episode: "Cool for Cats" by Squeeze; "They All Ask'd For You" by The Meters.

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