Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Colorful History and Etymology of “Pink Elephant”

Snakes in Your Boots, Blue Monkeys, and Red Giraffes –

a Sober Look at the Colorful History 
and Etymology of “Pink Elephant”

Seeing Snakes and Pink Elephants

Pink elephants, “hallucinations arising especially from heavy drinking or use of narcotics” (, have been a fixture in pop-culture for more than a century.  The high-water mark of pink-elephants in pop-culture may have been Dumbo’s champagne-fueled, psychedelic hallucination of Pink Elephants on Parade in Walt Disney’s 1941 classic animated film, Dumbo.  When Dumbo saw pink elephants in 1941, people had been seeing “pink elephants” for nearly forty years.  But it had not always been that way.  

Long before people saw pink elephants, they “saw snakes”; often “snakes in their boots.”  In time, the standard snake hallucination was amped up to include green and red rats, blue monkeys, red giraffes, pink and green elephants and any number of fantastically colored animals.  Pink (and green) elephants entered the picture in about 1896, and pink elephants were firmly established as the go-to drunken hallucination by 1904. 

But why did pink elephants win out over the blue monkey? One factor that may have driven pushed “pink elephant” to top of the heap was residual fallout from P. T. Barnum’s failed efforts to bring a white elephant to the United States in 1884 –Barnum’s heavily hyped “white elephant” was a big disappointment to many viewers – it was actually more of a “pink elephant.”

Seeing Snakes

By the mid-nineteenth century, “seeing snakes” and “seeing snakes in one’s boots” were well-established euphemisms for hallucinations.  The phrases were based on widespread reports that people suffering from delirium tremens (latin for shaking frenzy) caused by alcohol abuse saw visions of snakes.  A patient who woke up from a night of the “shakes” or the “horrors” might see snakes in their boots first thing in the morning. 

The phrase, “seeing snakes,” was used figuratively to mean seeing things that are not there, as early as 1847.

It is not remarkable that the Southern federalists are beginning to “see snakes.” The prospect of being forced to go into the next Presidential canvass, (as the selection of the Committees indicates,) on the grounds taken to suit the sentiment ruling in the Legislature of Massachusetts, is enough to give them the “thumps,” as well as the “horrors.”

The North-Carolina Standard (Raleigh, North Carolina), December 22, 1847, page 3.  
But the phrase was not merely a joke; it was used in serious medical journals to describe the actual symptoms of patients (note the opium treatment and concern for the moral welfare of the nurses):[i]

Moreover, the patient began to “see snakes.” Delirium Tremens was supervening on the sudden exhaustion and deprivation of liquor.  Continued Opium and Ammon. Carb., and directed warm wrappings and quiet.  We refrained from the use of liquor for the delirium, from a regard for the moral welfare of the nurses, and a desire not to “tempt them overmuch.”

Medical and Surgical Reporter, Volume 6, January 1853, page 110. 

Intemperance had converted the old man into a maniac; his head was often, as he supposed, surrounded by crows and vultures, and mornings always found toads and snakes in his boots.  The rum delirium was doing its work.

The Scalpel: an Entirely Original Quarterly Expositor of the Laws of Health, Volumes V and VI, New York, Sherman & Company, 1854, page 353.

The phrases “to see snakes” and “to see snakes in their boots” were both very common expressions, in both literal and figurative senses, throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth century. 

Funny Cuts (London), Volume 1, Number 15, October 18, 1890, page 120.

On at least one occasion, those snakes were colorful:

Snakes in Her Stockings. 
[Madisonville (Ky.) Times.]

We have often hearf of men having "snakes" in their boots, but a lady friend tells us of a case where a lady was worried with "snakes" in her stockings.  Her husband had brought home a barrel of hard cider.  Late one evening she concluded that she wanted some of it.  Having no other way of getting the coveted beverage, she inserted a straw in a gimlet hole in a barrel, and helped herself to the apple juice.  When she retired that night her rest was broken by visions of "snakes" twining, coiling, squirming and twisting around her stockings, which she believed she still had on.  She said it was exciting.  Big snakes, little snakes, old snakes, young snakes, green snakes, red snakes, yellow snakes, striped snakes, black snakes, double-headed and double-tailed snakes, all were there . . . .

The Daily Review (Wilmington, North Carolina), December 1, 1875, page 3.

The phrases were still in use in 1920, although they had long been over-shadowed by “pink elephants.” 

But why snakes? A doctor explained the physiology of seeing snakes in 1902.  I cannot vouch for the accuracy of his analysis, but the headline is interesting; it contains an early appearance of “pink elephant,” in the context of alcohol-fueled delusions:

Why Drunkards See Snakes.  

A London Doctor Explains but He Can’t Account for Pink Elephants.

London, Dec. 16. – A London physician has just offered an ingenious and at the same time scientific explanation for the curious symptom, that of seeing snakes, which afflicts sufferers from delirium tremens, induced by too much drink.  The doctor says this hallucination has been the subject of thorough investigation by him for several years and in 16 recent cases investigated by him and examined by the ophthalmoscope, he found that the minute blood vessels in the retina of the eyes were congested.  In this condition they appear black and are projected into the field of vision, where their movements resemble the squirming of snakes.

The Spokane Press, December 16, 1902, page 3.

The good doctor could not account for the pink elephants, but can we?

Why Pink Elephants?

Pink elephants first garnered significant attention in the news in 1884, when the showman P. T. Barnum brought the first “white elephant” to the United States.  You can read more about white elephants, the white elephant wars and white elephant swaps and sales in some of my earlier posts (follow the links).  But for our purposes here, it is only important to know that the “white elephants” were a big disappointment to an expectant public and the press:

I was at the pink elephant’s private view and should have written you about the brute before this, only I said to myself, cui bono? Old Tongue Bramah, or whatever they choose to call the “white” elephant, is a tremendous disillusion and no more white than an alligator is.  He has got a pink patch across his face and trunk, little pink dots on the outside of his ears, yellow toe-nails and a handsome pair of tusks.

St. Paul Daily Globe, March 9, 1884, page 11.  (See also, my post, White Elephants and the White Elephant Wars).

Standing in front of Toung Taloung, a person would believe that he was a pink elephant dotted with slate-colored spots . . . .

The Sun (New York), March 29, 1884, page 3.

At the time, the idiom, “a white elephant,” used to describe something that is desirable, although expensive and useless, was already in current use. (For more on the idioms see my post, The History and Etymology of “White Elephants”).  At least one reporter played off the scandal of the pink “white elephant” and modified the idiom:

The Collar Company have a “pink elephant” on their hands, and until they can dispose of it no good news can be expected.

The Mineral Argus (Maiden, Montana), April 24, 1884, page 4.

I do not mean to suggest that the term or phrase, “pink elephant,” took hold in 1884, but it did bring “pink elephants” into the public consciousness, generally, and may have influenced the rise of the “pink elephant” to the top of the drunken hallucination heap.  A story from 1904, when “pink elephant” had already become a firmly established slang phrase, suggests that the connection may not be so far-fetched:

Chapter XXII.


By this time Harold and Ione were within the territory of the kingdom of Siam.  They decided it would be a fine thing to paint the elephant, so they each took a whitewash brush and began to work for dear life, and in a couple of hours there stood before them their beloved elephant, transformed from a plain, ordinary, mouse colored elephant into a beautiful rose pink one.

Frances Trego Montgomery[ii], The Wonderful Electric Elephant, serialized in The New York Tribune, May 1, 1904, page 6. 

Coming, as it did, after “pink elephant” was an established idiom, it is unclear whether the book played off the then-current slang of “pink elephant” or referred back to the actual pink elephant and the “white elephant wars” of 1884, or both.  It at least shows an awareness of an association between “pink elephant” and “white elephant” during a time after “pink elephant” had became a common idiom.

For “pink elephant” to become a common idiom, however, it had to get past many colored and many-colored animals.  Its earlier notoriety and name recognition may have been the difference that pushed it to the top.

"Wild Bill" Hickock Sees a Monkey

In an anecdote published in 1887, about a man - "Wild Bill" - who had been shot dead eleven years earlier, Hickock's wife is said to have once warned him of the dangers of bad Western whiskey:

"Bill, if you don't quit this drinking pretty soon you will actually begin to see monkeys."

"Monkeys?" said he.  "What do you mean, little one?

"Why, you know, when people back east drink too much of the kind of whiskey they get back there they see snakes, but this awful stuff out here makes them see monkeys."

Bill laughed at her and did not give the matter a second thought, little dreaming that she had 'put up a job' to break him of his intemperate habits.

There was a tame monkey in the town . . . . 
The Opelousas Courier (Opelousas, Louisiana), August 20, 1887, page 2.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out how this story, about a renowned gambler and gunfighter ends. His wife plants the monkey in the bedroom, Bill wakes up thirsty after a hard night of drinking, he draws his gun unsure if it's an actual monkey and pulls the trigger.  As it turns out, he wasn't as drunk as he feared he was, his aim was good, and the monkey paid the price.

Colored animals appeared a few years later.

Colored Animals

The first stirrings of colored animals displacing snakes in hallucinations came in 1889.  In a joke about a man suffering from delirium tremens that was published in a magazine and reprinted in a number of newspapers:

My friend, you should give up strong drink.  Don’t you know that you would be happier and have more pleasure without it?  

Don’t know about that mum! I’ve been seeing circuses an’ menageries an’ snakes an blue monkeys with pink tails for two days, an’ I didn’t have to pay to get in, nuther. – From Drake’s Magazine.

The Manning Times, July 3, 1889, page 4.

Similar jokes, all published in multiple outlets, appeared with some regularity during the following several years:

A Gay Appendage.  
Mrs. Gummey (reading) – A man in Indiana saw a brown rat with a bright red tail the other day.  What do you think of that? 
Gummy – That was an animal with delirium trimmin’s. – Judge.

The Roanoke (Virginia) Times, January 15, 1892, page 6.

Just as Bad. 

“I had always heard there are no snakes in Ireland, remarked Twynn, “so I determined to prove it by going there and drinking whisky ad libitum.” 
“Well,” replied Triplett, “what was the result? Did you see snakes?” 

“No; I saw green rats, with bright red tails.” – Truth.

The Morning Call (San Francisco), November 9, 1892, page 8.

The “pink elephant,” well, initially a pink and green elephant, may have made its first appearance as a drunken hallucination in 1896, in the pages of Life magazine, in a regular feature, Fables for the Time, by Henry Wallace Phillips.  The fable follows the now familiar format; a man recovering from a bender sees things other than snakes.  Well, actually, in this piece, he does see a snake, but he is not impressed – he had seen much worse:

The Man and the Serpent

A man, who had lived a beautiful purple life, went to sleep under a tree in the forest.  Jove sent a huge serpent to destroy him.  The man awakened as the reptile drew near.

“What a horrid sight!” he said.  “But let us be thankful that the pink and green elephant and the feathered hippopotamus are not also in evidence.”
And he took a dose of bromide and commended himself again to sleep, while the serpent withdrew in some confusion.

What this proves to a thinking mind:

Jove himself couldn’t get a position as Sunday School Superintendent on his reputation.

Henry Wallace Phillips, Life, volume 27, number 696, April 30, 1896, page 343.

Fables for the Times (1897)

The fable was reprinted in book form (Henry Wallace Phillips, Fables for the Times, New York, Russell, 1896) and in other magazines (e.g., Godey’s Magazine, volume 135, 1897, page 241). 

A few months later, John Langdon Heaton (a founding, lifetime member of the advisory board of the Pulitzer School of Journalism) proposed his own theory of why people see what they see when suffering from delirium tremens.  He also introduced his own colored animals - blue monkeys:

Mania from drunkenness, delirium tremens, is not always “seeing snakes.”  The snake is a frequent object of the drinker’s mental hell, mainly because his delirium is as painful as an opium dream is pleasant, and because a snake is to most people the reverse of agreeable.  If the sufferer from alcoholism prefers, on the whole, snakes to blue monkeys, he’s pretty apt to see the monkeys.  The visions, whatever they are, are of animals, of something alive, or endowed with life, however distorted from the actual, perhaps because of the malignity of sentiment beings surpasses the cruelty of the inanimate; the delirium tremens doesn’t do things by halves.  But there are, in the cloud of witnesses to the folly of drink, animals never seen in the menagerie – devils and dragons, “gorgons and hydras and chimeras dire,” monsters of size, strange in color, breathing fire.  It is an eloquent offset to the stock joke about women and mice, that the rat is, in the visions of men’s alcoholic mania, almost as frequent a visitor as the snake.
The Morning Times (Washington DC), June 14, 1896, page 12 (reprinted in many other outlets).

Heaton’s Blue monkeys and Phillips’ pink elephants appeared together in 1897, with a yellow giraffe thrown into the mix:

A Candid Editor.

(From the St. Paul Dispatch.) A new play in London is called “The Blue Monkey.” We have seen it.  Also the pink elephant with the orange trunk and the yellow giraffe with green trimmings.  Also other things.

The Evening Times (Washington DC), December 6, 1897, page 4.

For several years, the color and types of animals said to be seen in drunken hallucinations continued to get more colorful and increasingly ridiculous.  In 1900, for example, pink zebras and pink giraffes joined the parade in Clarence Louis Cullen’s collection of stories about members of the “Harlem Club of Former Alcoholic Degerates”:

By the time the meeting closed the tobacco sauce and things were producing night pictures for me of pink zebras crossing purple bridges and that kind . . . . (page 237)

When I got through with the East St. Louis [poker] game – it only took me ten days to get through with it – I had the bundle of green tickets all ready for framing, most of ‘em at three to five on or thereabouts, and several pink giraffes following me around and beating me out by necks at every stage of the route. (page 163)

Clarence Louis Cullen, Tales of the Ex-Tanks; a Book of Hard-Luck Stories, New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1900 (the sketches originally appeared in the New York Sun in 1899-1900).


“Pink Elephant” Arrives

The “pink elephant” made major strides toward becoming the gold-standard of drunken hallucinations in 1901 when a joke featuring a pink elephant was reprinted in newspapers across the country; today, we might say that it “went viral”:


Detroit Journal.

We contemplated the alcoholic wreck with unmingled pity.

“A sinking ship, indeed.” We exclaimed.

“But the rats do not leave me!” shrieked the fellow, gesturing wildly.

We extended to him the helping hand, of course, but he shrank away mistaking this for a pink elephant.

The Saint Paul Globe, June 13, 1901, page 6.

It is unclear whether the joke elevated “pink elephant” to the status of a common expression, or whether it reflected a status it had already achieved.  But in either the case, “pink elephant” appeared with increasing frequency throughout the ensuing years, often in the company of colored snakes or monkeys:

The patient to be treated is afflicted with weird visions.  A pink elephant is sitting on his chest playing a banjo; a boa constrictor is placidly swallowing his leg; green monkeys are writing with styluses on his face.

The Evening World, November 5, 1903, night edition, page 5.

But the elephant was not always pink:

The Anti-Saloon League is going to see the law is so amended that a separate institution will be built in which the topers can chase the purple elephants all by themselves.

The Washington Times, December 7, 1903,page 8.

By 1904, “pink elephant” was acknowledged to be modern slang of the sort that old fuddy-duddies did not understand:

Why, governor, I think it is another case of pink elephant.”

“What does that mean?” asked Mr. Hill, who does not keep with the slang of the hour.

“Well, a fellow who had been on a long spree woke up one morning and saw a big pink elephant in his room.  He was very much perplexed to know how the elephant was going to get out, he was too big for the windows or the door.  While he was worrying about it the elephant solved the problem.”

“How? Asked Mr. Hill with a curious look.

“By backing out the keyhole.”

Evening Star (Washington DC), July 4, 1904, page 1.

Although “pink elephant” had become, and would remain, the dominant euphemism for a drunken hallucination, other animals and other colors appeared in print throughout the early 1900s, and continuing into the 1920s, in a sort of arms race-style escalation of fantasmical descriptions:

“blue giraffe . . . two pink parrots and a ring-tailed zebra”[iii]

“pink and green goats”[iv]

“hydra-headed snakes and blue monkeys”[v]

“snakes and blue monkeys”[vi]

“snakes, pink monkey and other pet animals.”[vii]

“green dogs, pink kangaroos and purple elephants . . . with the rest of the menagerie”[viii]

“red, white and blue turkeys with straw hats on”[ix]

“purple elephant with wings”[x]

“purple elephants, green rabbits and red frogs”[xi]

“a flock of pink and green snakes, a blue monkey and a red giraffe, and a purple dog all in a bunch”[xii]

The Washington (DC) Times July 26, 1908 - page 8.

The trend prompted one writer to joke:

Well, just as the fashion in drinks has changed, so has the fashion in visions.  A man who could only see ordinary snakes today would be laughed down as an old fogy.  In fact, a man who sees pink rats, blue devils, purple elephants and winged terrapins is something of a has-been.

The Evening Star (Washington DC), September 16, 1906, page 4.

Pink Elephant’s Legacy

As other colors and other animals faded into history, “pink elephants” continued their ascendance; they are still the go-to hallucination more than one hundred years later.   My personal favorite still stands in Marquette Iowa.  Back in the day, it occupied a more prominent position perched above the Mississippi River; visible from the bridge between Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin and Marquette, Iowa,[xiii] it stood as a bright, pink, top-hatted beacon, signaling that a long road-trip was nearing its end.  

Numerous restaurants, bars and taverns from all around the world still bear the name, “Pink Elephant.”  All of these Pink Elephants owe a debt of thanks to P. T. Barnum and Henry Wallace Phillips.  If not for P. T. Barnum’s “white elephant” debacle, and Henry Wallace Phillips’ fable, those same restaurants, bars and taverns might be called “Snakes in Boots,” or the “Red-Tailed Rat,” the “Blue Monkey,” the “Green Goat,” the “Red Giraffe,” the “Purple Elephant,” or some other ridiculous name.


“Pink Elephant” – that’s not ridiculous.

[Revise November 28, 2017]

[i] The term, delirium tremens, and its hallucinations appear as early as the 1822.  “In some instances they imagine they see some disgusting and loathsome animal in the room; as rats, mice, or snakes . . . Occasionally they imagine they see some frightful object, as the devil . . . .” Dr. Stephen Brown, Observations on Delirium Tremens, or the Delirium of Drunkards, with Cases, The American Medical Recorder of Original Papers and Intelligence in Medicine and Surgery, volume 5, number 2, April, 1822, page 194.
[ii] Frances Trego Montgomery’s book, Billy Whiskers at the Circus (1908), used the phrase “box of monkeys” to refer to a cage of monkeys, which illustrated the literal meaning of the now forgotten idiom, “more fun than a box of monkeys,” which is related to the better known idiom, “more fun than a barrel of monkeys.”
[iii] The San Francisco Call, July 14, 1904, page 9
[iv] Our Paper, volume 21, 1905, page 386.
[v] Los Angeles Herald, June 25, 1905, page 6.
[vi] The Spokane Press, September 12, 1906, page 3.
[vii] The Washington Times, July 26, 1908, page 8.
[viii] New York Tribune, August 2, 1908, page 6.
[ix] Albuquerque Citizen (New Mexico), March 8, 1909, page 3.
[x] The Washington Times (DC), February 23, 1912, last edition, page 12.
[xi] The Tacoma Times, June 15, 1912, page 1.
[xii] Hopkinsville Kentuckian, October 5, 1915, page 8.
[xiii] Marquette’s sister city, Macgregor, Iowa, is the birthplace of the Ringling Brothers.  Perhaps their spirits had a hand in bringing the Pink Elephant to Marquette-Macgregor, as a way of thumbing their noses at P. T. Barnum? – or celebrating him?

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