The American-English colloquial phrase to see the elephant means to see life, the world or the sights, as of a large city, to gain knowledge by experience.
The image is of an elephant kept in a menagerie, as is illustrated by the following from The Boston Morning Post (Boston, Massachusetts) of 30th January 1832:
The Elephant Romeo, now exhibiting at No. 16 Pond-street, is really a personage worthy of a visit from all who are fond of seeing great folks. […] The military should pay a visit, to see how belligerent operations are managed upon an Elephant’s back, laden with war; the civilians to take a lesson of gravity; […] and last, not least, children, that they may say they have seen an Elephant!—In short, there are two things in this world, which every person of curiosity and prudence should desire to do and suffer—see a big Elephant, and be inoculated for the small pock.
EARLY USES AND ORIGINAL MEANING
However, and contrary to what the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition, 1989) [see footnote] indicates, the original sense of the phrase was different: the experience referred to was negative, and to see the elephant meant to get sick and tired of something.
The earliest instance of the phrase—together with the explanation of its meaning—that I have found is from The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) of 26th June 1842, which published a chapter of the book by the American editor and journalist George Wilkins Kendall (1809-67), which Harper and Brothers (New York) published in 1844 under the title Narrative of the Texan Santa Fé expedition, comprising a description of a tour through Texas, and across the great southwestern prairies, the Camanche and Caygüa hunting-grounds, with an account of the sufferings from want of food, losses from hostile Indians, and final capture of the Texans, and their march, as prisoners, to the city of Mexico:
There is an expression in very common use in Texas—“Ive [sic] seen the Elephant.” The first time I heard it was the day we entered the Cross Timbers, or rather in the evening after we had encamped. I had already seen “sights” of all kinds—animals of almost every species—and felt ready to believe almost any thing I heard; but I knew very well we were not in an elephant “range” although ignorant of the nature of the expression.
A “green one” was however “caught,” and quite a laugh was raised in camp at his expense—a laugh in which I myself joined, but at the same time am frank enough to say I did not know exactly what I was laughing at.
“Well, I’ve seen the elephant,” remarked an old campaigner, tired down and worn out with the fatigues of the day.
“An elephant!” said a youngster, opening his eyes with astonishment; “I didn’t know there were any elephants in this country!”
“I’ve seen the elephant,” coolly rejoined the first speaker.
“A real, sure enough elephant?” again inquired the green one.
All within hearing, many of whom understood the thing, burst into a hearty fit of laughter on seeing how easily the young man had walked into a trap which, although not set for that purpose, had caught him. The joke of the expression I will explain. When a man is disappointed in any thing he undertakes, when he has seen enough, when he gets sick and tired of any job he may have set himself about, he has “seen the elephant.” We had been buffeting about during the day, cutting away trees, crossing deep ravines and gullies, and turning and twisting some fifteen or twenty miles to gain five—we had finally been obliged to encamp by a mud-hole of miserable water and the spies had been unable to find any ahead—this combination of ills induced the old hunter to remark, “I’ve seen the elephant.”
Apart from other uses of the phrase by George Wilkins Kendall, the second-earliest instance of the phrase that I have found is from Seeing the Elephant, an article published in the Weekly Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on 15th August 1842:
A hard looking case was Jim Griswell as he stood up yesterday before the Recorder, to answer to the charge of being found gloriously corned [= drunk] the previous night. […]
“Squire,” said Jim […], “I came down from old Kaintuck with a right decent sort of a broad horn and considerable plunder. I sold them off at a smart chance of a profit, and as I never was in Orleans before I thought I wouldn’t go hum without letting folks know I seed sumthin. So I went on a regular wake snakes sort of a spree, and I went here and there turnin, twistin and doublin about until I didn’t know where or who I was. But spare my feelings, squire, and don’t ask me to tell any more. Here I am in town without a rock in my pocket, without a skirt to my coat or a crown to my hat; without—but, squire, I’ll say no more, I’ve seen the elephant, and if you let me off now I’ll make a straight shute for old Kaintuck, and I’ll give you leave to bake me into hoc cakes if ever you catch me here again.”
The Recorder let Jim Griswell off on his parole as he confessed he had seen the elephant!
Curiously, a rather similar French phrase, peigner la girafe, literally to groom the giraffe, is used to refer to a pointless task, of which one gets sick and tired.
AN ALLUSION TO AN EARLIER STORY?
The English metaphor might have originated in a story, now apparently lost, involving a certain Tom Haynes; the first known allusion to this story is from Georgia scenes, characters, incidents, &c. in the first half century of the republic (Augusta, Georgia, 1835), by the American humorist Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (1790-1870):
Rapt with the enchantment of the season, and the scenery around me, I was slowly rising the slope, when I was startled by loud, profane and boisterous voices, which seemed to proceed from a thick covert of undergrowth, about two hundred yards in the advance of me, and about one hundred to the right of my road.
“You kin, kin you?”
“Yes, I kin, and am able to do it! Boo-oo-oo! Oh, wake snakes, and walk your chalks! Brimstone and — fire! Don’t hold me, Nick Stoval! The fight ’s made up and let’s go at it. — my soul, if I don’t jump down his throat and gallop every chitterling out of him, before you can say ‘quit’!”
“Now, Nick, don’t hold him! Jist let the wild-cat come, and I’ll tame him. Ned ’ll see me a fair fight—won’t you, Ned?”
“Oh, yes; I’ll see you a fair fight, blast my old shoes if I don’t.”
“That’s sufficient, as Tom Haynes said when he saw the Elephant. Now let him come.”
Thus they went on, with countless oaths interspersed, which I dare not even hint at, and with much that I could not distinctly hear.
Occasional mentions of the story occurred during the following years in newspapers of the Southern United States; for example, on 1st November 1839, The Mississippian (Jackson, Mississippi) quoted The Standard of the Union (Milledgeville, Georgia):
Georgia is herself again, and resumes her place in the ranks of her democratic sisters.
Charles J. McDonald is her Governor, and a democratic Legislature, by a decided majority in both branches.
We could shout victory and glory, but it is not in nature to exult over a fallen enemy: we have beat them, “and that is sufficient, as Tom Haynes said, when he saw the Elephant.”
note: I have exposed other errors in the Oxford English Dictionary in:
– on errors in the Oxford English Dictionary
– the mistaken origin of ‘white elephant’ in the Oxford English Dictionary
– a curious case of misunderstanding in the Oxford English Dictionary
– mistaken etymology of ‘not to give a XXXX’ in the Oxford English Dictionary
– clew – clue
– the authentic origin of ‘a pretty kettle of fish’
– the multiple meanings and origins of ‘P’s and Q’s’
– The usual explanation of ‘Hobson’s choice’ is fallacious.