Why Gorillas, Elephants, and Skeletons Don’t Mix (or, Keeping your metaphors clear)

Here’s one for the occasional series on bad mixed metaphors:

Gregory Jaffe, with the Washington-based consumer group the Center for Science in the Public Interest, calls Monsanto “the gorilla in the closet. They are this technology’s and this industry’s spokesperson.”

“Gorilla in the closet” is an especially prominent example of a bad mixed metaphor because unlike most, which simply mix two good images together to create one confusing image, this one hits the trifecta, combining three perfectly good metaphors into an unholy mess of meaninglessness.

So let’s untangle that above sentence and see what we’ve got. What are the three original metaphors that are mixed together here, what does each originally mean, and why should you use them more carefully than the example above?

The first metaphor that you might recognize, because it’s the most common, is “skeleton in the closet” (sometimes “skeleton in the cupboard,” also rarely “skeleton in the attic“). This is an old phrase (known from the first half of the 1800s, and possibly earlier) indicating a shameful secret, something kept hidden because it would cause great embarrassment if revealed. The traditional intent is broad, that the skeleton affects an entire family, but in contemporary use it often applies just to an individual with a secret that will be personally damaging.

Now, the second and third metaphors mixed in here are so tightly intertwined that they need to be covered together. One is “the elephant in the room” and the other is “an 800 pound gorilla.”

The elephant in the room” is used to indicate something that is obvious to everyone involved in a discussion, but which no one is eager to bring up. The participants willfully ignore it, because even though everyone is aware of it, no one is comfortable confronting it. It’s interesting that while this seems to be the definition used almost exclusively today, the original (and still variant) definition treats it instead as an incongruous point in a discussion, such as suddenly bringing up elephants when you’ve been discussing pancakes. Although that use is listed in the OED, going back to at least the 1940s, it seems to have been almost completely pushed aside by the “obvious but ignored” definition. Curiously, no one yet seems to have found a reliable citation for the current use prior to the mid 1980s (Wikipedia and OED mention the same 1959 citation, but the wording in that case indicates that it’s something that can’t be ignored, instead of something that’s being deliberately ignored).

That leaves us with the “800 pound gorilla.” (You might also occasionally see 400 pounds, 600 pounds, or other weights, but 800 seems most common and has the best ring to it.) This is the least documented of the three metaphors discussed in this post, having so far made it into only one of the big three dictionaries (Merriam-Webster). The meaning is fairly simple, basically that an “800 pound gorilla” is someone (or something) that does anything he wants in a situation where everyone else has to follow the rules. The phrase comes from the question “Where does an 800 pound gorilla sit?” Answer: “Anywhere it wants.” (Alternatively, “What does an 800 pound gorilla eat? Anything it wants.”) The phrase seems to have the most currency in business and politics.

The origin is unclear, and I haven’t come across a source willing to suggest a first use date. It’s certainly been circulating during the past 10 years, and a quote reprinted in this book, published in 2000, suggests that the phrase has been used since the late 1980s or early 1990s (you’ll find it on page 57). There appears to be a print use in a May 9th, 1988, article in The New Yorker, but unfortunately the text isn’t available through online databases, so I can’t present it here. Those references match up fairly well with my own personal first encounter with the phrase, which was around 1987. Chances are it was in use for some time prior to that, but went unrecorded.

With all that explained, what are we to make of this “gorilla in the closet” use? It turns out that this error is not new — it wasn’t difficult to find a use from as early as 1994. It also turns out that a simpler mixed metaphor version (“800 pound gorilla in the room,” without any skeletons) has been competing with “the elephant in the room” for a few years, at least since a financial services ad campaign in 2010 and a use by Mike Huckabee in 2011. It’s gotten to the point where some use the forms interchangeably, and to some others using the elephant variant might even seem odd.

What’s my suggestion? I think all three of these metaphors, in their original forms (“skeleton in the closet,” “elephant in the room,” “800 pound gorilla“) are wonderful, colorful, metaphors with very specific meanings. They should be used accordingly, and any of them (or all of them, in this case) are cheapened when they’re mixed together carelessly. Use them, but use them wisely and correctly. Your prose will be the better for it, and by keeping your meaning clear your reader will have a better experience.

= = = = =

NOTE: The “gorilla in the closet” quote that kicks off this post is from a story broadcast on PRI’s The World program recently. My usual note for these circumstances applies: while this kind of error is great fun to use as an example and pick apart, when it happens in speech — as this one did — we should all be entirely forgiving of the speaker. Everyone makes this kind of mistake off the cuff. The value here is instructional and cautionary. No shame is intended for the speaker. Had someone used this phrase in writing, however (not counting the broadcast transcript), that would be an entirely different story.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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One Response to Why Gorillas, Elephants, and Skeletons Don’t Mix (or, Keeping your metaphors clear)

  1. Pingback: If your eyes are on the ground, where did you put your boots? | thebettereditor

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