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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: grief

elephant in the room

(1980’s | therapese? | “touchy subject”)

Another expression that may sound older than it is — though Lovely Liz from Queens suspects it has been around for a long time, Google Books can’t find any examples before 1990. As far as LexisNexis can tell, elephants began shyly sneaking into rooms some time not long after 1980, and there are some good examples before 1990, but “elephant in the room” didn’t truly arrive until after that. It got exposure in advice columns thanks to an eponymous brief essay on mourning the death of a loved one by Terry Kettering — the elephant in the room being the brute fact of the death, which one rigorously avoids by means of trivial conversation. A lot of people read advice columns, so that probably had an effect. Sometimes the elephant is adorned with a color — pink or white — but that is an unnecessary elaboration. It’s a significant issue or event that no one wants to bring up — even though all participants know it is there — because it is sure to provoke discomfort, awkwardness, or guilt. Around the family dinner table, at a party, at church, at a political convention — the phrase has private and public dimensions. It may be used to suggest disingenuousness (because you’re maliciously avoiding the crucial point), but generally isn’t. The expression always implies that everyone involved is ignoring the issue willfully, but typically with good intentions, however misguided.

If “elephant in the room” is not an old expression, how did we say it before? I haven’t been able to come up with a really precise, idiomatic equivalent, but I might suggest related concepts, such as the verb phrase “tiptoe around a subject” (which might involve walking on eggshells) or the adjective “awkward,” which we still use to describe an unpleasant social situation.

The proverbial huge animal that I remember from childhood is the 800-pound gorilla, who sat wherever it wanted, a metaphor for the ability to compel others to do your bidding. The elephant in the room exerts a more subtle power by trammeling up conversation, effectively prohibiting discussion of a fact or situation that has a material effect on every other topic of discussion. That sort of suppression usually benefits someone, often those who already have an advantage of one kind or another. Maybe another way to look at it would be that the elephant in the room is the person who is powerful enough to compel others to avoid a sensitive subject.

As the noble elephant horns (or tusks) into the language in one more guise, I can’t resist rifling through the trunk (sorry) for others. The most common associations are sheer physical size, the Republican party (in the U.S.), and unnaturally good memory. If brain size is truly correlated with intelligence, elephants must be a lot smarter than we are. We also have pointless extravagance (white elephants), the D.T.’s (pink elephants), Dumbo, the Elephant Man, and the heartbreak of elephantiasis, a faintly comic disease as long as you don’t have it. “Elephant in the room” seems to be a simple appropriation of the most obvious of them, sheer size. If it’s not a big, overwhelming subject, it can’t be the elephant in the room.

They are not closely connected, but “adults in the room” echoes this expression and arose later, apparently during the G.W. Bush administration. A political expression par excellence from the beginning, it has gotten a considerable workout in the Age of Trump. The phrase attributes superior knowledge or more measured judgment to the “adults” who must mind the children that the voters have put in charge (if you remember the British sitcom “Yes, Minister,” you get the idea). But you don’t have to be especially smart, judicious, experienced, or wise to qualify as an adult in the room, just slightly moreso than the politicians. It’s all relative, and the standards can plummet in a hurry.


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in denial

(1980’s | therapese | “hiding one’s head in the sand”)

My guess is we owe today’s prominence of “denial” in psychological lingo to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. I doubt we would have “in denial” without the predecessor; the phrase as we use it now didn’t turn up before 1970 anywhere I looked. The term and associated concept — refusing to believe that which is clear to others, as by failing to acknowledge an emotional or psychological state, or even sheer physical reality — were already in existence, but Kübler-Ross’s “On Death and Dying” (1969) was very influential; one of its effects was to make the experience of denial common to nearly everyone. Not long after, the term became popular among counselors of alcoholics and other drug addicts who refused to admit they had a problem. “In denial” may be merely a compressed version of “in a state of denial.” It appears to be the most common phrase descended from “denial,” but not the only one; Pam Tillis hit the country charts in 1993 with a song about Cleopatra, Queen of Denial (though I’m pretty sure the redoubtable Rev. Billy C. Wirtz had used the joke before then).

“In denial” has been in use for a long time in other contexts, but the grammar is new. Now the phrase is most common as a predicate complement (e.g., “You’re in denial.”), possibly followed by “about,” but not “of.” In the old days, when it followed a verb it had to be active (e.g., “result in denial” or “engage in denial”). Of course, it appeared everywhere in legal prose (e.g., “in denial of the motion”), and it started to bob up in political contexts in the eighties, particularly around the time the Iran-Contra revelations were unraveling Reagan’s second term. It was kinder to say Reagan was in denial than to contend that he really didn’t know what was going on. Maybe this is one of the many terms Reagan helped into the language directly or indirectly, or maybe it would have happened anyway. By 1990 it had made its mark, though ace sportswriter Thomas Boswell put it in quotation marks as late as that spring. No surprise that it became popular — it’s compact and it packs a punch. The expression conjures a state of passive malignity or dangerous indifference, willful or not; like “passive-aggressive,” it’s always an insult.

Now “in denial” is entirely standard, eligible to be adapted to all sorts of uses, including humor, irony, and wordplay. (Here’s a bouquet of suggestions for compilers of rhyming dictionaries: “infantile,” “spin the dial,” “undefiled,” “linden aisle.”) I haven’t heard “SO in denial” or “in deep denial,” but I don’t get around much; both certainly lie within the universe of possible utterances. Or “Live in denial,” which may also be heard “living denial” (as in “Girl, you are just living denial 24/7“). “Oh, he’s such an old in-denial crocodile” could be the next catch phrase. “Hit denial on the head” might be a self-help slogan, meaning something like overcoming obliviousness and seeing the world without illusions. Why not “The In Denial 500,” which pits the nation’s most noxiously clueless bachelors against each other to see who can act the most idiotic? For you tongue-twister fans out there, it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do: Say “undeniably in denial” five times fast.

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