View Full Version : THE ELEPHANT & THE OWL

03-19-2005, 08:54 AM
“I’ve seen the elephant and I’ve heard the owl.”

A western expression dating at least from the mid 1830s.

“The expression to see the elephant has several related senses, all of which have to do with the idea of an elephant as a remarkable thing that one could see, for example, in a carnival.
The earliest, first recorded in 1835, is 'to see or experience all that one can endure; to see enough'. This presumably stems from the notion that once you have seen an elephant, no other sight could be as interesting. This sense is found in a number of examples through the 1850s, but then drops from use.

The major sense of the phrase is the broad 'to gain worldly experience; learn a lesson; lose one's innocence; see remarkable sights'. This dates from the 1840s and was relatively common throughout the nineteenth century, particularly in the American West. A specific subsense is the military 'to see combat, especially for the first time', which also dates from the 1840s. The reference of this phrase, then, is not to the actual use of elephants in combat; it's a figurative extension of an earlier meaning.

The phrase to see the elephant is still occasionally found. It is sometimes recognized as a nineteenth-century phrase--particularly from the Civil War--and is used in historical writing. It is also sometimes used in modern examples--we have examples of the 'to see combat' sense referring to the Vietnam War--but it is not that common, and is sometimes considered old-fashioned.“
Extracted from: www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19980714 - 8k -

As commonly used today, to see the elephant means to confront sudden death, usually in the form of one or more adversaries who are intent upon killing you. It usually comes as a shock to most people to discover that there are people out there that they are not angry at, may not even know, and who they have never harmed in any way, who are now intent and determined to kill them.

There are different reactions to the elephant..some freeze up, some cower and beg for mercy, some try to run and/or hide, and some fight back with all the ferocity they can muster. It is not unusual for someone to first act out one of the former, then at some point the warrior spirit infuses them and they rise up to confront and do battle with their elephant. Assuming they are still alive, of course. This was the theme of the novella The Red Badge of Courage.

The elephant may find one anywhere…in combat in the military, on a routine police call, in a roadside cafe that suddenly fills with outlaw bikers, in a dark parking lot, or at work in a crowded office building. It doesn’t matter whether or not one volunteered to go see the elephant, or if the elephant tracked one down and cornered him. The only thing that matters is did you fight fiercely.

“I’ve heard the owl.” has two disparate meanings. One, if you hear the owl hoot and it sounds like your name being called, that means that your time on this earthly sphere is about over. That is a fairly universal interpretation of those phenomena.

The other is a reference to the owlhoot trail, that is, life as an outlaw. A person who makes the statement, “I’ve seen the elephant and I’ve heard the owl”, is stating that they have faced sudden death and shown a fighting spirit, and also that they have done some things terribly wrong, and know guilt, shame and perhaps a deep yearning for redemption. Every context in which I came across the statement it was not intended as a boast, but more an apology for a serious or somber mien.

It was old western shorthand for today’s expression, “Been here, been there, done this, done that, got the T-shirt and the tattoo.”

God bless and y’all be mindful out there.

03-19-2005, 12:44 PM
Geezer-Thank you! Very interesting post.

03-19-2005, 09:06 PM

God bless and y'all be mindful out there.