Learn English – “As high as an elephant’s eye” – was it an existing figure

american-englishhistoryidiomsphrase-usage

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.

Best Answer

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.