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The 800-Pound Gorilla

The 800-pound gorilla does not exist, literally or metaphorically.

Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility. - Peter Drucker

As readers here know, I like to write essays about clichés that I do not like. The other day, I poked around to discover the etymology of the word cliché. It is a French word originating in the printing industry, after the introduction of moveable type. Moveable type was a huge innovation, but some words and phrases to be set in type were so common that creating them from scratch each time they were needed, one letter at a time, was inefficient.

So, common words and phrases were created in one piece, making it possible to set them as wholes; these were called clichés (or, interestingly, stereotypes). According to an apocryphal story, cliché is an onomatopoetic word reflecting the sound made when the mold for the common phrase was dropped into molten metal to make a printing plate.

Be that as it may, a cliché nowadays refers to any overused phrase that has lost its original novelty and thus its power. When we call a phrase a cliché, our typical intent is to disparage it.

Q: Where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep?

A: Anywhere it wants to.

One all-too-familiar cliché is the 800-pound gorilla, which refers to a person or entity so powerful that it can do anything it wants, despite opposition, because it can crush any adversary. The 800-pound gorilla is not to be confused with the equally clichéd elephant in the room, although Mike Huckabee reportedly did so in 2011 when describing Mitt Romney's health-care plan as "the 800-pound elephant in the room."

Sigh. Language is wonderful, except when it is not.

Besides overuse, what's wrong with 800-pound gorillas?

First, 800-pound gorillas don't exist, literally. Gorillas, even obese ones in captivity, never weigh as much as 800 pounds. And elephants, except as toddlers, never weigh as little. See Wikipedia for details!

Moreover, gorillas in their natural environment live in troops, and they are highly social and interdependent. Gorilla troops have a leader, typically an older male called a silverback, but the silverback usually mediates conflicts rather than creating or exacerbating them. He often has his own way, as it were, but it is because he is accorded the right to do so because of the responsibilities he has to his troop.

Second, and more importantly cliché-wise, 800-pound gorillas don't exist, metaphorically. Those in a group who always get their way in the face of constant opposition do not stay in charge indefinitely, no matter how much they weigh. Think Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet, Nicolae Ceausescu, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and, pending, Moammar Gadafi.

Of course we all have to deal with bullies and tyrants, in the workplace or in our neighborhood or, alas, sometimes at the helm of our nation, but they are never omnipotent. They will reap what they sow (another cliché, sorry), if not immediately then eventually, as long as the opposition lives, bides its time, and picks the right time and appropriate means for deposing them. That's what history shows, locally and globally.

Third, along these lines, metaphorical 800-pound gorillas are objectionable because believing in them is defeatist and thus self-fulfilling. They will never go away if we drink their Kool-Aid (another cliché but one I happen to like).

Fourth, to explain your own ineffectuality in a group by reference to an 800-pound gorilla who opposes you can be a rationalization. We should all consider the possibility that those who oppose us prevail not because they are powerful but because they are right. I'm not saying this is always the case, but why not consider it? Not to do so is a likely risk factor for becoming an 800-pound gorilla yourself, if you are ever given the opportunity.