Word of the Day


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


a very large wild animal that lives in Africa and Asia

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The noun elephant comes from the Latin ‘elephantus’ which was derived from a Greek word meaning ivory or elephant. It was first used in English in the 14th century, replacing the earlier term ‘oliphant’ which came from Old French.


Yesterday, August 12, was World Elephant Day, an annual attempt to draw attention to the urgent plight of Asian and African elephants that has been running since 2012. Elephants are threatened by poaching, habitat loss and mistreatment in captivity, including for tourism purposes; one of the aims of World Elephant Day is to persuade tourists to experience elephants in non-exploitative and sustainable environments. As befits the largest land mammal currently alive, elephants play a large role in our language and culture. Someone or something described as elephantine is large, slow and not graceful (a bit hard on elephants, which can move at more than 25 kph and certainly do not lack grace). A white elephant is an unwanted and useless object or a failed expensive project. The more recent black elephant is a rare but significant risk that everyone knows about, but no one wants to discuss. This meaning of a large problem that is deliberately ignored is also contained in the phrase the elephant in the room. The elephant‘s thick skin is referenced when we say that someone has the hide of an elephant (or a rhinoceros) to say that they are difficult or impossible to upset. (The term pachyderm used to refer to both these animals comes from Greek words for ‘thick’ and ‘skin’.) The American expression to see the elephant means to gain experience of the world. It is said that elephants never forget, so to have a memory like an elephant is to have a very long memory.


“The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?”
(David Attenborough)

“Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant, The only harmless great thing.”
(John Donne)

In the High and Far-Off Times the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk.”
(Rudyard Kipling, The Elephant’s Child)

Related words

trunk, tusk, herd, calf

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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