Main Article Content


Lexicographers and paremiologists have been struggling with the American proverbial phrase “to see the elephant” since the 1840s, attempting to establish its history and elucidate its meanings. Often those attempts have resulted in erroneous information and fanciful conclusions. At least two instances of the expression can be identified from early-modern England.

Article Details

American proverbs, English proverbs, historical lexicography, historical paremiology, California gold rush, American Civil War
How to Cite
Doyle, C. C. “‘TO SEE THE ELEPHANT’: MEANINGS OF THE PROVERBIAL PHRASE, AND ITS AGE”. Proverbium - Yearbook, vol. 39, no. 1, July 2022, pp. 58-85, doi:10.29162/pv.39.1.59.


Aesopus. Esops Fables. Translated by John Brinsley. Second edition. London: Thomas Mann, 1624.

Aesopus. Caxton's Aesop, edited by R.T. Lenaghan. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

“The American Language.” Puck, vol. 1, no. 8, 1877, p. 11.

Arrian (Arrianus Flavius). Arrian, translated by E. Iliff Robson., 2 vols., London: Heinemann, 1929-33.

Axon, Gordon V. The California Gold Rush. New York: Mason, 1976.

Barrère, Albert, and Charles G. Leland. Dictionary of Slang, Jargon, and Cant, 2 vols. London: Ballantyne, 1889-90.

Bartlett, John Russell. Dictionary of Americanisms. New York: Bartlett and Welford, 1848.

Basse, William. The Poetical Works of William Basse, edited by Richard Warwick Bond. London: Ellis and Ellis, 1893.

Berrey, Lester V., and Melvin Van den Bark. American Thesaurus of Slang. New York: Crowell, 1942.

Bierce, Ambrose. Collected Works. 12 vols. New York: Neale, 1909-12.

Brunvand, Jan Harold. Dictionary of Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases from Books Published by Indiana Authors before 1890, Indiana University Folklore Series 15. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961.

Carleton, James Henry. The Prairie Logbooks, edited by Louis Pelzer. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Cassidy, Frederick G., Joan Houston Hall, and Luanne Schneidermesser, editors. Dictionary of American Regional English. 6 vols. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1985-2013.

Christy, Edward Pearce. Christy’s Plantation Melodies, No. 2. Philadelphia: Fisher & Brother, c1853.

Clapin, Sylva. New Dictionary of Americanisms. New York: Weiss, 1902.

Cory, Henry Nathaniel. The Slang of Venery and Its Analogues. 2 vols. Chicago: privately published, 1916.

Craigie, William S., and James R. Hulbert. Dictionary of American English. 4 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938-44.

Dalzall, Tom. Vietnam War Slang: A Dictionary on Historical Principles. London: Routledge, 2014.

Davies, Sir John. The Poems of Sir John Davies, edited by Robert Krueger. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.

Dent, R. W. Shakespeare’s Proverbial Language: An Index. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Dent, R. W. Proverbial Language in English Drama Exclusive of Shakespeare: An Index. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Dwyer, Richard A., and Richard E. Lingenfelter, editors. Songs of the Gold Rush. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964.

Erasmus, Desiderius. The Colloquies of Erasmus, translated by Craig R. Thompson. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Farmer, John. Americanisms, Old and New. London: Privately printed, 1889.

Farmer, John, and William Ernest Henley. Slang and Its Analogues, Past and Present. 7 vols. London: Privately printed, 1890-1904.

Flexner, Stuart Berg. I Hear America Talking. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1976.

Frank, Joseph Allan, and George A. Reaves. “Seeing the Elephant”: Raw Recruits at the Battle of Shiloh. Contributions to Military Studies 88. New York: Greenwood, 1989.

Franklin, Benjamin. Writings, edited by J. A. Leo Lemay. New York: Library of America, 1987.

Green, Jonathon. Green’s Dictionary of Slang. 3 vols. London: Chambers, 2010.

Greene, Robert. Life and Complete Works in Prose and Verse, edited by Alexander B. Grossart. 15 vols. London and Aylesbury: privately published, 1881-86.

Hammond, George P. Who Saw the Elephant? An Inquiry by a Scholar Well Acquainted with the Beast. San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1964.

Hanford, G.L. “Metaphor and Simile in Folk Speech.” Dialect Notes no. 5, 1922, pp. 149-180.

Hartin, J.S. “Elephant and Owl”. American Notes and Queries 5, 1966, p. 56.

Hendrickson, Robert. Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. New York: Facts on File, 1987.

Henley, Beth. Four Plays. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 1992.

Holliday, J.S. The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.

Hotten, John Camden. A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words. Second edition. London: Hotten, 1860.

Hotten, John Camden. The Slang Dictionary, Etymological, Historical, and Anecdotal. London: Chatto and Windus, 1874.

Hulbert, Archer B. Forty-Niners: The Chronicle of the California Trail. Boston: Little, Brown, 1940.

Johnson, William Weber. The Forty-Niners. New York: Time-Life Books, 1974.

Jonson, Ben. Ben Jonson, edited by Charles Harold Herford, Percy Simpson, and Evelyn Simpson. 11 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1925-52.

Kendall, George Wilkins. Narrative of the Texan Santa Fé Expedition. 2 vols. New York: Harper, 1844.

Kirk, Anthony. “Seeing the Elephant”. California History vol. 77, 1998-1999, pp. 174-184.

Layton, Thomas N. “Stalking Elephants in Nevada.” Western Folklore 35, 1976, pp. 250-57.

Levy, Jo Ann. They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush. Hamden CT: Archon, 1990.

Lighter, Jonathan E. Historical Dictionary of American Slang. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1994-1997.

Longstreet, Augustus Baldwin. Georgia Scenes. Augusta GA: “printed at S. R. Sentinel Office,” 1835.

Maitland, James. American Slang Dictionary. Chicago: R. J. Kittredge, 1891.

Montaigne, Michel de. Oeuvres Complètes, edited by Robert Barral. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1967.

Montaigne, Michel de. Essays of Michel de Montaigne, translated by Michael Andrew Screech. London: Penguin, 1991.

More, Thomas. Latin Poems, Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More 3, part 2, edited and translated by Clarence Miller et al.. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.

Morris, William, and Mary Morris. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. Second edition. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

“A Night on the South Platte.” Baily’s Monthly Magazine of Sports and Pastimes, no. 33, 1879, pp. 279-283.

Oehlschlaeger, Fritz. Old Southwest Humor from the St. Louis Reveille, 1844-1850. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.

Partridge, Eric. Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Third edition. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949.

Picayune. Portfolio of Reports of the New Orleans “Picayune.” Philadelphia: Picayune, 1846.

Price, Richard M. “Facing the Elephant.” Executive Speaker 12, no. 5 (May), 1991, pp. 1-6.

Rae, J. “Seeing the Elephant.” Western Folklore 28, 1969, pp. 21-26.

Reid, John Phillip. Law for the Elephant: Property and Social Behavior on the Overland Trail. San Marino CA.: Huntington Library, 1980.

Robinson, Forrest G. “Seeing the Elephant: Some Perspectives on Mark Twain’s Roughing It”. American Studies 21, 1980, pp. 43-64.

Scamehorn, H. Lee, Edwin P. Banks, and Jamie Lytle-Webb, editors. The Buckeye Rovers in the Gold Rush: An Edition of Two Diaries. Revised edition. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989.

Schele de Vere, Maximilian. Americanisms: The English of the New World. New York: Scribner, 1872.

“Seeing the Elephant.” Kourier Magazine 2, no.1 (Dec.), 1925, p. 17.

[Smith, Richard Penn (?)]. Colonel Crockett's Exploits and Adventures in Texas. Philadelphia: Collins, 1836.

Stevenson, Burton. Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Familiar Phrases. New York: Macmillan, 1948.

Tamony, Peter. “To See the Elephant.” Pacific Historian 12, 1968, pp. 23-29.

Taylor, Archer. Proverbial Comparisons and Similes from California. [University of California] Folklore Studies 3. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1954.

Taylor, Archer, and Bartlett Jere Whiting. A Dictionary of American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases 1820-1880. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Taylor, John. The Water Cormorant. London: for George Eld, 1622.

Thomson, Mortimer, and Edward F. Underhill. The History and Records of the Elephant Club. Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson, 1856.

Thornton, Richard H. American Glossary. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1912.

Tilley, Morris Palmer. A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950.

Urdang, Laurence, Walter Hunsinger, and Nancy LaRoche. Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit: Gale, 1985.

Whiting, Bartlett Jere. “American Wellerisms of the Golden Age.” American Speech 20, 1945, pp. 3-11.

Whiting, Bartlett Jere. Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Wiley, Bell Irvin, editor. The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952.