By Fattie


2018-06-02 15:53:42 8 Comments

One of the most famous lines in American theater is

"The corn is as high as an elephant's eye",

written around 1942 by Oscar Hammerstein II, obviously the opening of Oklahoma,

There's a bright golden haze on the meadow
There's a bright golden haze on the meadow
The corn is as high as an elephant's eye
And it looks like it's climbing clear up to the sky

Oh what a beautiful mornin'....

1. "as high as an elephant's eye" was already an idiom at that time.

(Perhaps - who knows? - due to the circus fad of the time.)

2. "corn as high as an elephant's eye" was already an idiom at that time.

(You can imagine, perhaps, that phrase being used in American rural life.)

3. Hammerstein invented from whole cloth the phrase "as high as an elephant's eye".

(So, contemporaries hearing "The corn is as high as an elephant's eye" heard it as a completely novel sentence; it was not at the time an existing figure of speech or idiom. It only then became a catchphrase.)

So which was it?

Watch the film version of the song.

enter image description here

Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote much of the Broadway canon with Richard Rodgers.

--

Would y'all please note the question here is very simple:

Yes or no, was "high as an elephant's eye" an existing idiom / figure of speech at the time? Or was it a novel phrase?

For some reason this question seems to have attracted confusion, I have completely rewritten with hopes of clarity.

4 comments

@JEL 2019-03-06 20:13:49

The origin of a spoken phrase is seldom simple. That is the case with 'high as an elephant's eye'. Even supposing the origin can be definitively sourced to one person, and that one person offers an origin story, the story is still a story. The truth about the phrase may be more complicated.

I suspect the use of 'high as an elephant's eye' in Oklahoma was sponsored by a common pun in theatrical circles. The pun obliquely refers to a well-known anecdote. Certainly Hammerstein II, as the grandson of the theater impressario Oscar Hammerstein I and the son of theater manager Willie Hammerstein, would have been aware of some version of the story, and would have heard the pun at least one if not many times.

A longer pun, "the corn is as high as an elephant's eye", was probably extemporized by Hammerstein II while composing. The long version plays on at least three meanings of 'corn', in addition to the allusive range of meanings conveyed by the shorter pun, 'high as an elephant's eye'.

One meaning of 'corn', of course, was the common field crop.

Another common meaning of 'corn' at the time of Oklahoma's composition was the colloquial sense of "something corny", where 'corny' signifies

Of such a type as appeals to country-folk; rustic or unsophisticated; tiresomely or ridiculously old-fashioned or sentimental; hackneyed, trite; inferior.

OED (paywalled)

OED attests 'corn' in the 'corny' sense with quotes from 1936, 1937, and 1946.

The third meaning of 'corn' that may have been bubbling toward the surface of Hammerstein's compository stew was the elliptical

Corn-whiskey. U.S.

OED

The elliptical use of 'corn' to mean "corn-whiskey" is attested in OED by quotes from 1820-1936.

"High", of course, may refer to being drunk. OED attests the sense with quotes from 1846 and 1943 (among other dates).

The "elephant's eye" may be an obscure ('obscure', that is, to folks not steeped in stage lore) reference to a mid-19th century anecdote about a specific theatrical production. The anecdote itself refers to an earlier expression, still common in another form (wherein the elephants are pink): 'seeing the elephant'.

Putting the stage folklore aside for the moment, one meaning of the phrase 'seeing the elephant' is recounted in this humorous report from the 1846 Pickings from the portfolio of the reporter of the New Orleans Picayune, by Dennis Corcoran (bold emphasis mine):

SEEING THE ELEPHANT.

Jim Griswell.
 A hard looking case was Jim Griswell as he stood up yesterday before the Recorder, to answer to the charge of being found gloriously corned the previous night. ....
 "Griswell," said the Recorder, "you have been found drunk."
 ....
 "Squire," said Jim — and his eye showed a desire to assume the melting mood, "...I went on a regular wake snakes sort of a spree, and I went here and there, turnin' twistin' and doublin' about, until I didn't know where or who I was...but, squire, I'll say no more, I've seen the elephant...."
 The Recorder let Jim Griswell off on his parole, as he confessed he had seen the elephant!

So, 'seeing the elephant' (and variants) was at the time a euphemism for being blind drunk, on a "wake snakes" spree, "gloriously corned". 'Corned', by the way, is a slang term for "intoxicated", as attested by four quotes from the 19th century in OED.

One version of the anecdote from theatrical folklore, here reproduced from the Illinois Journal (Springfield, Ill.) 23 December 1847, p. 1 (bold emphasis mine), builds on the "blind drunk" meaning of 'seeing the elephant', rather than the diversionary offshoot mentioned:

SEEING THE ELEPHANT.

BY FRANK WEBBER.
 This term though very common, is perhaps understood by few — that is the origin thereof. It is now applied to young men who pack up their duds, shoulder a musket, and go to revel in the halls of the Montezuma's, or plod on their weary way to Santa Fe. And also those who have got their eye teeth cut for the first time, by coming in contact with the knowing ones of some of the 'Fancy' — Though it is particularly adapted to such, yet the original use thereof was far more racy than its application in modern days. Could I but paint scenes peculiarly rich with a pen as well as Hogarth could with a pencil, even you, kind reader, would acknowledge that seeing the elephant was a sovereign cure for the blues. Wemyss, in his "twenty-six years of an actor's and manager's life," forgot to portray it, and so what my poor pen can do must suffice.
 Some years since at one of the Philadelphia Theatres, a pageant was in rehearsal in which it was necessary to have an elephant. No elephant was to be had. ... Days past in the hopeless task of endeavoring to secure one, but at last Yankee ingenuity triumphed, as indeed it always does; and an elephant was duly made to order, of wood, skins, paint and varnish...two of the 'supes' were duly installed as legs. Ned C—, one of the true and genuine 'b'hoys' held the responsible station of 'fore-legs,' and for several nights he played that heavy part to the entire satisfaction of the manager and the delight of the audience. The part, however, was a very tedious one, as the elephant was obliged to be on the stage for about an hour, and Ned was rather too fond of the bottle to remain so long without 'wetting his whistle,' so he sets his wits to work to find way to carry a 'we[e] drop' with him. The eyes of the elephant being made of two porter bottles with the necks in, Ned conceived the brilliant idea of filling them with 'good stuff.' This he fully carried out, and elated with his success, willingly undertook to play the fore-legs again.
 Night came...Ned and the hind legs marched upon the stage. The elephant was greeted with round upon round of applause. ... The play proceeded, the elephant was marched round and round the stage. The fore-legs got dry, and withdrew one of the corks, treated the hind-legs, and drank the health of the audience in a bumper of genuine elephant eye whiskey, a brand, by the way, till then unknown. On went the play, and on went Ned drinking. The concluding march was to be made — the signal was given and the fore-legs staggered towards the front of the stage. The conductor pulled the ear of the elephant to the right — the fore-legs staggered to the left. The foot lights obstructed his way — he raised his feet and stepped — plumb into the orchestra! Down went the fore-legs on the leader's fiddle — over of course turned the elephant, sending the Prince, closely followed by the hind-legs into the middle of the pit. The manager stood horror struck — the Prince and hind-legs lay confounded — the boxes in convulsions, the actors choking with laughter. Ned casting one look, a strange blending of drunkenness, grief and laughter at the scene, fled hastily out of the Theatre, closely followed by the leader, with the wreck of his fiddle, performing various cut and thrust motions in the air....
 ...everybody holding their sides, music, actors, pit, gallery and boxes, rushed from the Theatre, shrieking between every breath,
   "HAVE YOU SEEN THE ELEPHANT!!"

Hammerstein II, of course, if queried about the origin of his expression, might not have been inclined to mention the long, complicated and somewhat off-color history of his choice. Instead, an evasive, even if partially true, explanation, given without reason for the choice of 'elephant' ('giraffe', being only two syllables, was never in the running), might have seemed easier as well as less likely to provoke a backlash from the temperance set.

If the joke has to be explained, after all, it ceases to be funny. Everybody familiar with the details of the theatrical history would already understand the humor, and those who were not already familiar with the pun would not need to be enlightened.


To be plain:

  1. I did not find "high as an elephant's eye" in print prior to Hammerstein's composition. 'Big', 'tall' or more rarely 'high' as an elephant was, however, a common hyperbole, also sometimes an accurate descriptive, in the 1940s, perhaps deriving from the widespread renown of Barnum's Jumbo (long dead by the 1940s).

  2. I did not find the 'corn was high as an elephant', or variants, including '...elephant eye', in print prior to Hammerstein's composition. A common phrase at the time was, however, 'corn high as a horse's back'. Noteworthy, however, is that 'corn' was at the time in widespread use with the colloquial meaning of "old-fashioned or inferior music" (OED, paywalled). That sense along with the sense of 'corny' I mentioned earlier, derived from circumstances described in a 1946 American Speech article (21 234/1; as cited by OED):

    M. Sandoz...The seed catalog [from c 1890 to 1910]...featured a great variety of seed corn...interspersed with short jokes and riddles, sometimes even cartoons. The jokes were all time-worn and over-obvious and were called corn catalog jokes or corn jokes, and any quip or joke of that nature was called corny.

  3. Hammerstein did not invent "high as an elephant's eye" from whole cloth. He at least recycled scraps of earlier stock phrases, including 'corn as high as X', where X was commonly "horse's back", and also including 'big as an elephant'.

One origin story explaining the source of the line, although described as a "local legend" in The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of 18 May 1989, p. 252 (paywalled), at least fits the facts to known circumstances:

Local legend has it that when lyricist Oscar Hammerstein wrote "the corn is as high as an elephant's eye" for the musical Oklahoma, he was looking at the elephant atop the Buckingham Township Republican headquarters looming over the six-foot-tall August corn.

The account in the 1989 Inquirer appears earlier in a slightly different form in the Inquirer of 1986 (p. 349, paywalled):

  Joe Kenny, 78, the owner of Kenny's News Agency and Bookstore in Doylestown, said Hammerstein's view from the balcony included an elephant that once set atop the Buckingham Township Republican Headquarters at Durham Road and Route 202.
  Kenny said that Hammerstein discarded the image of corn as high as a cow pony's eye for a line in the song; instead he used "The corn is an high as an elephant's eye." He may have been looking at that elephant over the top of the more than six-foot-tall August corn, Kenny said.

Hammerstein wrote the lyrics of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" at the Highland Farm, Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, next to Buckingham Township and across the road from a corn field.

A report on a fire in The Central News (Perkasie, Pennsylvania), 11 Apr 1940, confirmed the existence of the elephant on top of the Bucks County Loyal Republican Club headquarters (approximately 1 mile from Highland Farm via contemporary roads):

 In spite of a fire which damaged their headquarters...members of the Loyal Republican Club of Bucks County...turned out for the scheduled meeting....
 ...A large electric sign, that of an elephant, toppled thru the roof as it weakened from the fire.

Presumably, the elephant sign was replaced when the club headquarters was repaired.

In any case, elephants were not in short supply in the area at the time. Elephant Road ran at least from nearby Dublin (about 6 miles from Highland Farm) to the unincorporated community of Elephant (about 11 miles from the farm); an extension of Elephant Road from Dublin to Doylestown might well have been replaced by the later State Route 313 sometime after Hammerstein moved to Highland Farm.

@Brian 2019-03-06 15:13:15

Originally the line as written was "the corn is as high as a cow pony's eye", but when OHII saw corn was much higher than that, he modified it to "the corn is as high as an elephant's eye" - no mystery, no shenanigans, just the magic of OHII!

Source: Tom Purdum, Something Wonderful (2018), p. 72. If you swoon (my poor children!) when hearing anything Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote I highly recommend Something Wonderful!

@Fattie 2019-03-06 16:00:55

that's awesome Brian - do you have a reference? I've read most of their books but did not catch that one !

@Fattie 2019-03-06 20:39:57

Thanks for that fantastic reference !!!!!!!!!

@Fattie 2019-03-13 00:44:55

New user @Brian you truly deserve the fat-ass bounty - thank you so much for this information you brought to the table! Thanks!

@TaliesinMerlin 2019-03-06 16:52:36

First, Brian's entry is right. According to a 1944 interview with Hammerstein in Life magazine, OHII revised the line from "the corn is as high as a cow pony's eye" to "the corn is as high as an elephant's eye" in order to emphasize the height of the corn he saw at Highland Farm:

However, the corn seemed to stand taller than a cow pony's eye, yet not so tall as a giraffe. Hammerstein finally settled on an elephant. His impulse was to go out and measure the corn with a tape measure and check with the Philadelphia Zoo on the dimensions of the average elephant, but he decided that this would be running it into the ground.

So "as high as an elephant's eye" was not lifted from an existing idiom.

That said, OHII may have been influenced to choose an elephant by existing cultural associations between elephants and height. When I conducted a search in a (possibly paywalled) newspaper database ("America's Historical Newspapers"), "as high as an elephant('s body part)" was an occasional expression. Here's a description of a very large feather bed ("In Defense of Feather Beds." Kansas City Star, Main ed., vol. 35, no. 163, 27 Feb. 1915, p. 10:

It is almost as high as an elephant's back, and one needs to use a chair to climb into it.

And here's a vivid description of an early bicycle ("He Wheeled Them in Did Nancy Hanks Last Night- a Capital Talk on Cycling." Charlotte Observer, vol. VII, no. 768, 9 May 1894, p. 4):

He said "when bicycles first came out it was thought that the scheme of trying to ride a thing as high as an elephant, and as hard to stay on as a Texas bronco, was only the wild result of some hair-brained crank who would live long enough to be buried with a broken neck, caused by a fall from his own invention."

Other permutations change the initial adjective slightly ("Composition on a Cow." Wilkes-Barre Weekly Times, vol. 11, no. 263, 13 Jan. 1900, p. 7.):

The cow is bigger than the calf but not so big as an elephant

Here's another ("Revillug's Travels." Times-Picayune, 25 Mar. 1900, p. 28):

Its body was every bit as big as an elephant, and it gazed at me with its lack-luster eyes in a way that made me tremble.

I've found hundreds of results to this effect between 1900 and 1940. The results trail off after 1920, perhaps for corpus limitations, but there is this bit from a 1938 advertisement:

enter image description here

This helps illustrate that "elephant" was in fairly common use at this time to refer to height and size, and why "elephant" would be applied before other also-tall or -high objects. "As high/big as an elephant" is not precisely an idiom, but it is a common collocation. OHII's genius was making the elephant's eye work in such an evocative line.

@Fattie 2019-03-06 17:14:24

Regarding this fantastic answer, @TaliesinMerlin - regarding the LA Times article mentioned: who, actually, are they quoting that asserts that is the case? They're quoting James A. Michener (who ... lived in that house or something?) It's totally confusing to me! (As I mentioned to Brian, I have never seen this mentioned in any of the books about O.H. / Rogers.)

@Fattie 2019-03-06 17:16:09

Again, I really can't discombobulate the writing in that crap article. Is it just the article writer saying "now that I've seen the view, I reck'n that ...". Very unclear.

@TaliesinMerlin 2019-03-06 17:49:56

Yes, I find the lack of attribution frustrating. So I found an earlier source - a Life article from 1944 that includes an interview with Hammerstein. books.google.com/… This claim is not directly attributed there, but I regard it as a paraphrase of an anecdote from Hammerstein.

@TaliesinMerlin 2019-03-06 17:53:13

And actually, reading the entire anecdote, the explanation itself is fascinating. "However, the corn seemed to stand taller than a cow pony's eye, yet not so tall as a giraffe. Hammerstein finally settled on an elephant. His impulse was to go out and measure the corn with a tape measure and check with the Philadelphia Zoo on the dimensions of the average elephant, but he decided that this would be running it into the ground."

@Fattie 2019-03-13 00:44:25

this does seem to be the most information-rich on-target answer so I ticked it! I felt it was wise to click the 500 bountization to New User Brian who found the reference!!!!!! I hope you agree with this course of action - and, thanks! One of the best answers on the site.

@TaliesinMerlin 2019-03-13 01:20:41

Absolutely. Brian answered the question most directly, so I'm happy he got it. Thanks! :)

@Fattie 2019-03-13 02:26:34

we ROCK !!!!!!!!!!!

@Fraser Orr 2018-06-02 17:19:35

I thought this was an interesting question -- and I think kind of hard to answer. So a good starting point is google ngrams. There seems to be no references to "high as an elephant's eye" at all in any of their corpus. So I tried "elephant's eye". NGram can be viewed here.

Usage of Elephant's Eye In Google NGram

You can see there is mostly noise in this graph (and curiously a dip when the musical was published followed by a growth.) However, looking at the sources themselves "elephant's eye" seems primarily to have been an idiom meaning "small", especially so in the context of shooting For example: "It was not my purpose to fight, even if I had any hope of success against marksmen, who could hit an elephant's eye."

However, I also found this reference to a book "Speaking of Animals: A Dictionary of Animal Metaphors":

to be high as an elephant's eye: To be over ten feet tall. Source: ELEPHANT. WNNCD 14cent. In the Musical Oklahoma! it was the corn that was high as an elephant's eye... The African elephant.... was probably familair to early Oklahomans from visits there by the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

This does make a glancing reference to a 14th century source. However, it isn't clear what that source is, and I suspect it might be more of a reference to the size of an elephant rather than the idiom.

So, although absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence, I'd say that it was most likely an idiom made up out of whole cloth by Hammerstein. I'd add in support of this view that were this to be commonly idiomatic it would have to have lasted for about 100 years from the time of the setting of the musical to the writing of the musical for it to have been relevant in both contexts. It seems unlikely that an idiom could be so long lived and not survive at all in the extensive corpus used in Google's book database.

@Hot Licks 2018-06-02 17:34:03

"Hitting an elephant's eye" with a gunshot is a reference to being an accurate and effective marksman, as a bullet elsewhere (when shooting from the front) is quite ineffective. This likely was well-known to big game hunters of 100-150 years ago. (This problem is described in a George Orwell story.)

@tautophile 2018-06-02 17:36:09

It seems to me quite obvious that Hammerstein was looking for a rhyme for "high", thought of "eye" (and later of "sky"), and saw that the eye of an elephant is several feet above the ground, roughly the height of a fully grown corn plant in the first decade of the 20th century (when "Oklahoma!" was set). No mystery, no quotation or allusion to any past idiom.

@Fattie 2018-06-02 17:52:51

I'm afraid that makes very little sense, @tautophile - it's quite commonplace that there were common phrases (at the time) in pre-war years; indeed such questions are very often investigated on this site. (For example, a recent worthwhile question concerned "jerked-off".) I can't see any way, whatsoever, that you personally would "just know" "obviously" that "as high as an elephant's eye" was not a used phrase, in the early 1900s. (On the contrary, because the phrase is so utterly bizarrely ex-nihilo, it seemed very obvious to me that it MUST HAVE BEEN a used phrase of the era.)

@Fattie 2018-06-02 17:54:09

Fraser, and @HotLicks, you make a fantastic and critical point that "elephant's eye", per se, (nothing to do with "high as .." just the "eye" per se!) was, and one could possibly say is, a somewhat commonly-used phrase in relation to sharpshooting.

@Lambie 2018-06-02 18:03:46

@Fattie Rogers and Hammerstein were poets and could say whatever could be understood. They didn't just use cliche. Though The Music Man has wonderful "period" language in it.

@Fattie 2018-06-02 18:06:47

hi @Lambie. when we read Shakespeare today, there are many, many passages that you can only read with a modern explanation. W.S. uses puns based on common phrases of the day, references to events of the day, and so on - and it's impossible to understand this as a reader today unless you have someone explain each of these.

@Fattie 2018-06-02 18:09:15

I'll give you the perfect example from merely 50 years ago, @Lambie. Paul McCartney wrote .. "butter pie? the butter wouldn't melt so I put it in a pie". Even today, not to mention in 100 years: one might ask "Did McCartney make up that ingeniously smutty phrase from whole cloth, or was it a play on a slang of the day?" I do know the answer to this - because I read his autobiography where the bloke talks about it. But few young people today (or in 100 years) would know the answer to that off the top of their head, without research.

@Lambie 2018-06-02 18:16:31

@Fattie We are not talking about the same thing.

@Fattie 2018-06-02 18:23:51

And just FWIW from that reference "... was probably familair to early Oklahomans ..." the writing of the play had no connection to Oklahoma and was not written by "Oklahomans" :) Although yes, I too suspected the whole "Circus craze" (whether in 1900, or 1940 - I don't know?) might be related???

@Lambie 2018-06-02 19:12:53

The real question is how Rodgers and Hammerstein managed to make all the lyrics sound so homespun and authentic. Where in the heck would they have heard that speech to copy? In movies? Travelling? Who knows...

@tautophile 2018-06-02 19:54:38

Fattie, I said "it seems to me quite obvious". I didn't (and don't) claim that my interpretation is in fact 100% true, merely that it seems so to me. Unfortunately we can't ask Hammerstein himself; he died in 1960. I don't think he mentioned where he got the phrase "as high as an elephant's eye" from in any of his other writings, but I don't know; nor do I know whether the phrase's origin is discussed in any books about the musical or biographies of Hammerstein. We shouldn't forget that "Oklahoma!" [1943] was written only about 35 years after the events in the play took place (1906).

@Fraser Orr 2018-06-03 02:58:19

@Fattie in regards to your question about WNNCD, I believe it is referring to "Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary", though I can't be sure without access to the bibliography of the source -- which I unfortunately don't have. However, no doubt that elephants were well known in Europe in the 14th cent. (from whence this language would have come.) We know for sure that the Romans used elephants in their Circus games. They were well known in the classical world, in fact elephant is originally a classical Greek word.

@Fattie 2018-06-03 12:30:39

@FraserOrr - yes, of course you're right about elephants, good one! Hannibal and so on .. elephants were kind of a Roman thing.

@Fattie 2019-03-06 16:19:43

@FraserOrr - one confusing point. Purely regarding your last paragraph. So, OH was writing in 1940 about 1840. I believe in that paragraph you're assuming he was "using 1840 language when writing in 1940", ie it was meant to "sound like folks from 1840." I actually didn't even think of that aspect. (I simply assumed that if it was an idiom it was simply "an idiom in 1940" .............. if you see what I mean.) I don't want to add more confusion here but, there you go!!

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