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8 English and Swahili idioms and proverbs mentioning elephant

We’ve collected a list of five English and five Swahili idioms that draw on the physical characteristics, the emotional qualities and the behavioural patterns of elephant as they teach us something of the human experience.

The fact that Swahili has a variety of idiomatic expressions drawing on elephant to teach humans something is perhaps unsurprising. The Swahili peoples of East Africa live alongside these creatures. In Kenya, we have lengthily enjoyed our close proximity to these creatures and, in our musings on them, we’ve found lessons worth learning.

The fact that English speakers have also allowed the elephant to make a presence in the linguistic expressions that shape their culture is perhaps more surprising. But, of course, the elephant captures the imagination for so many obvious reasons that we shouldn’t extend that surprise too far. Something so large, so obviously intelligent, so awe-inspiring surely, and obviously, has the power to excite peoples half the world away.

Where necessary, we’ve also provided origins to these idiomatic expressions. Some you’ll know, and for these we’ve given some extra information. Some you won’t; with these idioms or proverbs, maybe just give them a whirl next time they feel appropriate to the conversation.

“The elephant in the room”

This is one that many of our readers will be aware of. Many of the English language phrases interestingly lean on the physicalness of elephant. Perhaps this is representative of the the fact that it is the size and weight of elephant that comes to mind first when we think of them.

The ‘elephant in the room’ of course refers to an obvious problem or issue that everyone is aware of but nobody wants to address or acknowledge.

“Ndovu wawili wakisongana, ziumiazo ni nyika” translates as ‘When two elephants fight, it is the grass (or reeds) that are hurt”

It’s a well-used idiom, or proverb. As such, it’s often used slightly differently or changed; sometimes you’ll hear it spoken of with other large animals and not elephant. What it always tries to capture is the notion that when two big forces clash it is the powerless that really suffer.

It’s often used in relation to political infighting. Julius Nyerere famously used it to describe the Cold War: a conflict in which the USSR and the USA tussled for power often at the expense of Africa and Africans.

“To be the elephant in the garden”

A lesser-known idiom that is most probably a spin-off of the earlier mentioned ‘elephant in the room’ phrase. To be the elephant in the garden, something is similarly troublesome and as much of an obstacle but it is far enough away not to be a direct problem but still a deterrent.

You might want to think of the elephant in the garden as the worry that stops you starting tasks.

“Tembo hashindwi kubeba pembe yake” translates as ‘The elephant never fails to carry its tusk(s)’

This phrase is interestingly deterministic. When someone says that ‘the elephant never fails to carry its tusks’, they are saying, someone will solve something because it is theirs to solve.

It’s a phrase that intriguingly blends the importance of taking responsibility for ones own issues with the fact that the person-specificness of those problems makes a problem solvable. It’s both push and pull in the doing of something.

“To have the hide of an elephant”

This phrase is also frequently heard and it refers to someone who is thick-skinned or unaffected by criticism or insults.

“Kichwa tembo” translates to having the head of an elephant or being elephant-headed.

We’ve put this immediately under the ‘having the hide of an elephant’ phrase because the two have similarities. Elephant headedness is quite obviously similar to being bull-headed. It’s a reflection of the stubbornness of elephant, their unwillingness to back down to challenges.

It can be an insult and a compliment, depending on a variety of factors.

“A white elephant”

We’ve included the ‘white elephant’ idiom in this list because of it’s interesting origin. A white elephant describes something rare, and often valuable, that is also a huge, often more expensive than the original value, to keep and maintain.

The origin of this phrase comes from the gifts that the King of Siam used to give to peoples he valued highly. White elephants were so rare in the Kingdom of Siam that when they were born they instantly became the property of the King.

He would then give these white elephants as gifts. Being given a white elephant was a huge privilege but it was also a massive financial burden that often financially broke the recipient.

“Lala uli simba. Amka uli ndovu” translates as ‘Sleep like a lion. Wake like an elephant’

It is a phrase frequently used to instruct people to sleep on big, emotive decisions. A lion is known for its capacity certainly but also for its contemptuous fury. An elephant, on the other hand, is still capable but is much more regal and considered in its judgment. The phrase, at its essence, instructs people to sleep on it, to wake up still capable of doing whatever was needful but now with a clearer mind.






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