Uncle Hyena (unclehyena) wrote,
Uncle Hyena

Seeing the Elephant

You learn things every day. For years, I have (rarely) used the phrase, "To see the elephant", on the assumption that it was 18th (or maybe even 17th) century British army slang for having experienced a baptism of fire, literally to have fought in a battle in which the opposing troops used elephants. It occurred to me that no one might know what I was talking about, and last night I asked Dementia, and she said she thought it was a reference to the parable of the three blind men and the elephant. ::sigh::

This morning I actually looked it up, and found we were both wrong; it is a 19th century purely US phrase regarding an experience of wonder, most typically seeing an elephant at a circus for the very first time, but also generally for an experience of the grandeur of the American West: Crossing the Mississippi and seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time, for instance. (And you COULD see the Rockies from the Mississippi bluffs in those days.) By the time of the US Civil War, it had settled into the meaning I am familiar with: To have had a first hand experience of the horror of combat.

Anyway, I am working on an essay that was going to use the phrase, and now is not. Intead, I will use the phrase, "To see the black dog", where the black dog is a harbinger of your own death, in this case in a context of suicide and self harm. The sentence in question runs, "I want to know you have seen the black dog; I want to know that you have stood on the edge of the cliff and looked into the face of the Abyss." I think that will do what I want it to do...

Uncle Hyena
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