Origin and usage
The adjective mammoth comes, of course, from the noun mammoth, which was first used in English in the 18th century to refer to a very large extinct mammal similar to an elephant, but with long curved tusks and often long hair. The adjective dates from the beginning of the 19th century. Mammoth belongs to a fairly select group of English words that are borrowed or derived from Russian originals, in this case ‘mamant’.
Mammoths died out relatively recently, mostly around 10,000 years ago, although a small isolated population survived until roughly 4000 years ago. The fact that many well-preserved specimens exist has led to speculation that one or more species of mammoth could be recreated through cloning, although some researchers believe that attempts to create hybrids of mammoths with elephants, their closest living relatives, are more likely to succeed.
The use of mammoth as an adjective to describe any unusually large thing arose in the US, with the earliest use being ascribed to Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, who had a keen interest in paleontology. In 1801 he described receiving a gift of a quarter of a ‘Mammoth-veal’ (a calf) that weighed 438 pounds at the age of 115 days.
“The hairy mammoth seems to have been an admirable animal, intelligent and well-accoutered. Now that it is extinct, we try to understand why it failed.”
“The exercise I do now is a mammoth change for me because I never did any exercise ever.”
colossal, gargantuan, ginormous, humongous
View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.
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