Stupid Question ™
May 1, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: How did the idea of seeing pink elephants while drunk start?
A: It started as the far less amusing idea of seeing pink spiders.
From the late 1800s to about 1930, pink spiders were the standard drunk-hallucination cliché. But there were variations. Pink rats still have some British currency. The earliest use of “pink elephants” I could find is in Jack London’s “John Barleycorn” (1913), which in the same breath refers to “blue mice.” (Do blue mice scare pink elephants, I wonder?)
Drunks really can experience hallucinations of threatening insects and animals, though the pop-culture cliché that it happens while drinking is only very rarely true. Instead, it’s usually a symptom of delirium tremens, the final (and sometimes fatal) stage of alcohol withdrawal, typically occurring two to three days after an alcoholic’s last drink.
Hallucinated beasties are often of strange colors, and that’s probably where the “pink” (and “blue”) comes from. There are other possibilities: “to paint the town pink” is to go on a drinking spree; there are also such drinks as pink champagne, pink gin and the “pink lady” cocktail. But that’s a winding road to follow, and I think the spiders just really were pink. Ask me about “pink” later if you care.
What are not common in drunken hallucinations are large, generally unthreatening animals such as elephants. Their coup over the spiders almost certainly involved some outside influence.
I think seeing pink elephants was a combination of pink spiders with the preexisting slang phrase, “to see the elephant.” This term sprung up around 1830, especially in the West and Southwest, and meant to have an overwhelming experience. “I’ve seen the elephant” basically meant, “I’ve had enough.”
It could also mean, in the words of etymologist J.D. Lighter, “to gain worldly experience or to learn a hard lesson,” from which came the sense of seeing something incredible, shocking or awesome (including, in military parlance, live combat). Hallucinations seem to fit that bill.
By the mid-1800s, “the elephant” referred to any incredible sight, while the meaning also broadened to include anything generally worth seeing. Thus, by the late 1800s, sightseeing was sometimes known as “elephant business,” and hanging out in opium dens was “elephant hunting.”
(It’s also interesting, though probably irrelevant, that “elephant’s trunk” was rhyming slang for “drunk” in the mid-1800s, though mostly in the UK.)
Wherever the elephants actually came from, they sealed their claim to being the quintessential drunk hallucination through popular culture. This happened, by no coincidence, during the 1920s-1940s period, when drunkenness was often depicted as cute and funny. Elephants are certainly less disturbing than venomous vermin.
The laws of the New Drunk Order were carved in stone by such popular entertainments as Guy Lombardo’s song “Pink Elephants” (1932) and Disney’s “Dumbo” (1941), with its bizarre “Pink Elephants on Parade” segment.