Why do we say ‘elephant in the room’ and other expressions? Here are the fun origins of 3 popular phrases

Popular sayings in the English language often have multiple meanings — such as “a heart of gold” and “time is money.”

Some expressions are also clever metaphors for deeper meanings.

But where did they come from? Who started saying these popular phrases — and why are they so familiar today? 

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Here are a few interesting expressions to explore.

There are plenty more out there as well — so stay tuned!

Some metaphoric expressions that we use every single day without thinking about them have interesting histories.   (iStock)

3 popular sayings and their surprising origin stories

1. ‘Elephant in the room’

The popular phrase doesn’t mean, of course, that there’s an actual an elephant in the room, which would be quite something.

Rather, it refers to a very big topic of conversation that no one is discussing. 

When there’s “an elephant in the room,” typically a big piece of information, news or dramatic moment is being withheld or avoided by many.

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The saying has an interesting history. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the first recorded use of the phrase came in 1959 from The New York Times.

On June 20, 1959, the publication noted that “financing schools has become a problem about equal to having an elephant in the living room. It’s so big you just can’t ignore it.”

Man and woman sitting next to each other on a couch, looking awkward.

When there’s “an elephant in the room,” typically there’s a big piece of information, news or dramatic moment that’s being withheld or avoided — even though everybody knows it. (iStock, courtesy contributor Voyagerix)

However, well before that, in 1814, Russian writer Ivan Krylov wrote “The Inquisitive Man” — and discussed a character who visits a museum and fails to notice an elephant presumably in the room. 

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Many also credit writer Mark Twain with the origin of the phrase in his 1882 short story “The Stolen White Elephant,” about detectives seeking an elephant. 

2. ‘Shrinking violet’

This popular expression is often used to describe a shy, timid or bashful person — someone who does not like attracting attention to himself or herself. 

Woman looking nervous, puzzled, or confused.

The term “shrinking violet” is “mainly used figuratively to describe modest and introverted individuals.” (iStock, courtesy contributor AaronAmat)

By adding a negative to it, the phrase then refers to someone who’s the complete opposite of that, as in, “She’s no shrinking violet.”

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While the expression may have begun as the lyrical name of a vibrant, colorful flower rather than a person, it’s “now mainly used figuratively to describe modest and introverted individuals,” notes The Phrasefinder website.

An early example of the phrase’s use in print, notes the same source, is from Pennsylvania’s Titusville Herald newspaper in 1870. 

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The article ripped into William Tweed of New York, believed to have absconded with public money.

It includes a line about “deputations of the taxpayers of New York waiting upon Mr. Tweed with the title-deeds of their mansions and the shrinking violet Tweed begging them to pardon his rosy blushes. Can it be that he is a humbug?”

3. ‘Go cold turkey’ 

This popular phrase has nothing to do with deli meat or the main course of a Thanksgiving meal. 

To “go cold turkey” usually refers to someone who quits something for good without delay, lead-up or extended convincing or discussion. For example, when referring to a smoker who suddenly kicks the habit, one might say the person has quit tobacco “cold turkey.”

The phrase was first written in British Columbia’s Daily Colonist in 1921; it discussed those who surrendered to see a doctor, according to Merriam-Webster. 

Quitting smoking

The phrase “going cold turkey” often refers to people who abruptly stop a habit or practice they’ve long wanted to give up.   (iStock)

The newspaper column noted that “perhaps the most pitiful figures who have appeared before Dr. Carleton … are those who voluntarily surrender themselves. When they go before him, [they] are given what is called the ‘cold turkey’ treatment.”

“The phrase manages to vividly capture the initial dread and discomfort that comes from immediately quitting something that’s addictive.”

In 1978, the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out that the phrase is “cold turkey,” not just “turkey” — because “it derives the hideous combination of goose pimples and what William Burroughs calls ‘the cold burn’ that addicts suffer as they kick the habit.”

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As Merriam-Webster also notes, “It may be that the original ‘cold turkey’ was a combination of cold (‘straightforward, matter-of-fact’) and the earlier talk turkey, which dates back to the early 1800s and refers to speaking plainly. Regardless of its ultimate origins, the phrase manages to vividly capture the initial dread and discomfort that comes from immediately quitting something that’s addictive, from drugs to dating apps.”

Beau Wallace contributed reporting. 

For more Lifestyle articles, visit www.foxnews.com/lifestyle.

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