An obvious truth that is either being ignored or going unaddressed, based on the idea that an elephant in a room would be impossible to overlook.
The term refers to a question, problem, or controversial issue which is obvious to everyone who knows about the situation, but which is deliberately ignored because to do otherwise would cause great embarrassment, or trigger arguments or is simply taboo. The idiom can imply that the issue ought to be discussed openly, or it can simply be an acknowledgment that the issue is there and not going to go away by itself.
The elephant in the room often involves a social taboo, such as race, religion, or even suicide. The phrase is applicable when a subject is emotionally charged; and the people who might have spoken up decide that it is probably best avoided.
The idiom is commonly used in addiction recovery terminology to describe the reluctance of friends and family of an addicted person to discuss the person’s problem, thus aiding the person’s denial. In this usage, it’s sometimes called “the pink elephant in the room.”
An 1814 a fable entitled The Inquisitive Man was published. It tells of a man who goes to a museum and notices all sorts of tiny things, but fails to notice an elephant. The phrase became proverbial and Fyodor Dostoevsky used it in his novel Demons.
Mark Twain, in 1882, wrote a story called The Stolen White Elephant, which slyly dissects the inept, far-ranging activities of detectives trying to find an elephant that turned out to be right on the spot after all.
One commonly discussed topic in the 1980s was called ‘the Northern Ireland question’ or, more colloquially, ‘the Troubles.’ Film director Alan Clarke made a documentary called Elephant in 1989. The film’s screenplay was written by Bernard MacLaverty, who was reported as describing the Troubles as ‘the elephant in our living room.’
In 2006, the British artist Banksy set the phrase in visual form with an exhibit of a painted elephant in a room in the Barely Legal exhibition in Los Angeles. The theme of the exhibition was global poverty. By painting the elephant in the same bold pattern as the room’s wallpaper, Banksy emphasized the phrase’s meaning, by making the elephant obvious and giving those who chose to ignore it (like the woman in the tableau) an opportunity to pretend that it had blended into the wallpaper background.
All this reminds me of another Mark Twain story, about the little boy who was told to stand in a corner and not to think of a ‘white elephant.’ And, naturally, when told not to think about something, you can’t think of anything else.