What does the idiom "The elephant in the room" mean?

You are wondering about the meaning of the phrase The elephant in the room, maybe you heard it in a TV show, movie or theater play. Although this idiom is not used very often, it enriches your capacity of expression and strengthens communication. In which case is the expression The elephant in the room used and what is its meaning?

Meaning of "The elephant in the room"


The phrase “the elephant in the room” is an idiom most commonly used to refer to an issue or problem that everyone knows about but no one wants to talk about, due to it being awkward or potentially controversial. It is often used in situations in which people are uncomfortable bringing up or addressing a problem or issue, due to its potential to stir up conflict or disagreement, so it is left as an elephant-sized obstacle in the room that no one addresses. For example, in a situation where one person has done something wrong, it might be difficult for others to confront them about it, so it is just left as an elephant in the room.


The term “the elephant in the room” has become a popular idiom in recent years, but it is unclear exactly when and how it originated. The earliest known usage of the phrase appears to be in the 1920s, when it was used by American author O. Henry in his short story “The Ransom of Red Chief” as a metaphor for a problem that was looming and remained unsolved. Since then, the phrase has become widely known and used in everyday conversation.


The phrase “the elephant in the room” is mainly used figuratively, to refer to an issue or problem that everyone knows about but no one wants to talk about. It can also be used in more literal senses, such as when an elephant is actually in the room, or when someone is referencing a “big” problem that needs to be addressed. This phrase is often used to draw attention to an issue that needs to be discussed, and encourages people to be honest and open about it, instead of sweeping it under the rug.

Example Sentences

  • The board members were all aware of the elephant in the room, but no one wanted to be the one to bring it up.
  • The couple had been avoiding talking about their financial problems for months, so it was clearly the elephant in the room.
  • The obvious elephant in the room was that no one wanted to talk about the possibility of layoffs.

The meanings of the words in the "The elephant in the room" idiom

Idioms have a common language

"The early bird catches the worm" is an English idiom that means that those who wake up early and start their day early are more likely to succeed. A similar idiom in Spanish is "El que madruga, Dios le ayuda," which translates to "God helps those who rise early." This idiom emphasizes the importance of starting the day early in order to achieve success.


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