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Footprints in the butter: an homage to elephants in the English language

On April 13, 1796, an elephant set foot on American soil for the first time. Although accounts vary, this elephant has been identified with Old Bet, who became a national sensation as the main attraction of Hackaliah Bailey’s circus. Outside the Elephant Hotel in Somers, N.Y., built by Bailey and named after his star performer, stands a wooden likeness of Bet, mounted atop a granite pole. But although Western countries were late to welcome elephants to their shores, the English language has a much longer relationship with these remarkable creatures. Let’s explore some of the places where elephants have left their footprints.

What’s big, grey, and doesn’t matter? An irrelephant.

While watching a history programme on TV, I noticed the presenter referring to “calvary riding on elephants”. Since cavalry (like the related chivalry and cavalier) is ultimately related to the Latin for “horseman”, I wondered if elephantry might not be an apt (not to mention novel)  way to describe those elephant riders, and settled back to hear more about the fascinating mahouts, or elephant-riders, of India.

It turns out I wasn’t as novel as I thought. The word elephantry, describing troops mounted on elephants, is found in the Oxford English Dictionary. Evidence for it goes back at least to 1747, by which time the East India Company had been facilitating trade between Britain and the Indian subcontinent for nearly 150 years

Only ten years later, in 1757, a victory of the East India Company’s private armies over the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies at the Battle of Plassy began a period of expansion in which the Company came to govern more and more of India. After a further hundred years, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 saw the collapse of the East India Company, whose territories in India were taken over by the British government, to create the infamous British Raj.

What has big ears and two trunks? An elephant on holiday.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that elephant-related words like elephantry start to make their way into English during this period of colonial expansion. Other terms were borrowed into English from various Indian and Middle Eastern languages, to create a vocabulary for this foreign animal in its role as a war-beast and work-beast. Mahout, for example, comes from Hindi, and is found in English texts as far back as the year 1662, while howdah, the name for the seat in which a mahout sits, comes from Arabic via Urdu and is first seen in texts from the 1770s.

Howdahs could be very elaborate, and an early term for the well-built ones used in war was castle, so that elephants were occasionally called carry-castles (a term which is first found in the late sixteenth century.) The Elephant and Castle became a common name for pubs and inns in England, and it was from one of these that the area of London known as Elephant and Castle took its name.

The growing interest in Indian culture, including the use of elephants, which grew up around the increase in trading connections from the seventeenth century onwards was by no means the first time that the English language had encountered the wonderful pachyderms. Elephants had been known to the Ancient Romans, famously used against them by the Carthaginian general Hannibal during the Second Punic War (although only one of Hannibal’s nearly forty elephants survived the journey across the Alps), and it was from Latin sources that elephants first came to the notice of English writers. The earliest references to elephants are found in Old English literature, where they are called elps, a severely shortened form of Latin elephantem. Later texts use a fuller form of the word, oliphant, which is also (in the variant form oliphaunt) what the Hobbits in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings called the elephant-type creatures of Middle Earth.

What do you call an elephant doctor? A pachydermatologist.

The modern form of elephant, with an initial e, first appears in the fourteenth century, where it refers not only to the animal but also to sufferers of leprosy. Elephancy was a synonym for leprosy, perhaps because the effects of the disease on the skin made it look a little like the thick, dry hide of an elephant. The medieval author John Trevisa suggested an alternative reason for the name, that the worst form of leprosy “has that name from the Elephant, that is a full great [large] beast… for this evil grieves the patient passing hugely”.

The term elephancy fell out of use towards the end of the seventeenth century, to be replaced by elephantiasis. Elephantiasis has been used over time to refer to a variety of medical symptoms and diseases, including leprosy and similar skin conditions, as well as conditions which cause abnormal swelling of parts of the body. Joseph Merrick, better known in Victorian London as “The Elephant Man” was said to suffer from elephantiasis, although later medical research suggests that he didn’t have any of the conditions usually associated with the term, but rather something like neurofibromatosis or Proteus syndrome. But the point of the comparison, as with many other uses of elephantiasis, was to highlight symptoms of uncontrolled enlargement of a part of the body.

Because, of course, elephants are big. The African elephant is the largest land mammal in the modern world, and its size has contributed to its high profile in proverbs around the world. A Marathi proverb tells us to aim high: “If you kill, kill an elephant. If you rob, rob a treasury”, while a Chinese saying reminds us of the dangers of dissatisfaction: “man’s heart is never satisfied; the snake would swallow the elephant.” And in Dutch, people don’t make a mountain out of a molehill, but an elephant out of a mosquito. In English, of course, we have the elephant in the room, a big problem or controversy which is perfectly obvious but which everyone ignores, and the white elephant, a burdensome or useless thing. The latter apparently derives from the tale that rulers of Siam (now Thailand) would give an elephant as a gift to a disfavoured courtier, in order that he would ruin himself paying for its upkeep.

What’s the biggest kind of ant? An eleph-ant.

Far more colourful than its white cousin is the pink elephant, an impossible creature much featured in hallucinations and the visions of the cheerfully sozzled (think of the Dance of the Pink Elephants segment in the Disney film Dumbo). Indeed, the name of Dumbo, the elephant with the unfeasibly large ears, is a play on jumbo, a word which was already used to mean something big and clumsy before it was popularized as the name of an elephant in Barnum’s circus in the 1880s. And, of course, dumbo has since entered the language as an insult. And while the crows in the film Dumbo claimed never to have seen “an elephant fly”, they could certainly have seen an elephant beetle, as well as an elephant fish, and an elephant seal, all animals which are so-named for being large examples of their species.

The elephant has inspired everything from medical terms to metaphors, from proverbs to poetry. Let’s end with an example of the latter, from the humourist Hilaire Belloc:

When people call this beast to mind
They marvel more and more
At such a LITTLE tail behind,
So LARGE a trunk before.

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