[Ads-l] Antedating of An Elephant Never Forgets

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Apr 13 12:29:11 UTC 2021

Hmmm…I found the relevant passage on the web drawn from a volume of excerpts (or chosen morsels, as the French like to put it) from Buffon, and it includes this footnote:

“Il ne paraît pas cependant que la mémoire de l’éléphant soit plus grande que celle du chien ou du cheval.”

—i.e. it does not, however, appear that the memory of the elephant is greater than that of the dog or the horse”.  A mixed review at best. 

So why the discrepancy? The text to which this excerpt attaches reads in part as follows:

"La reminiscence doit *ici* être plus parfaite que dans aucune espèce d’animal; car la mémoire tient beaucoup aux circonstances des actes…”
[highlighting added]

—in other words, *in the particular respect under discussion*, [the elephant’s] memory must be more perfect than in any other animal species; because memory resides largely in the circumstances of actions.  It depends on the kind of memory involved, whether it’s specific and linked to particular actions, smells, etc., or more general.   No doubt a Buffoniste has expounded on this distinction somewhere, but I’m skeptical that Buffon would endorse the general claim that an elephant never forgets. 


> On Apr 13, 2021, at 12:41 AM, ADSGarson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM> wrote:
> French naturalist Comte de Buffon published a multi-volume work about
> natural history. It was translated into English and the third edition
> appeared in 1791.
> The article about the elephant asserted that "The memory of the
> elephant should be more perfect than that of any other animal". This
> statement is not as compact as the saying "Elephants never forget",
> but the idea is similar.
> The reasoning presented by the book is odd. The Elephant memory is
> superior because the animal experiences many sensations which results
> in deep impressions.
> Year: 1791
> Title: Natural History, General and Particular
> Author: Count De Buffon
> Translator: William Smellie
> Third Edition
> Volume 6 of 9
> Article: The Elephant
> Start Page 1, Quote Page 52
> Printed for A. Strahan and T. Cadell, London
> Database: Google Books
> https://books.google.com/books?id=zE3MEQnmPGkC&q=%22memory+of%22#v=snippet&
> [Begin excerpt]
> The memory of the elephant should be more perfect than that of any
> other animal; for memory depends greatly on the circumstances of
> actions. No solitary sensation, however lively, can leave any distinct
> or durable impression; but several combined and contemporary
> sensations make deep and lasting impressions; so that, if the elephant
> cannot recollect an idea by touch alone, the adjacent and accessory
> sensations of smelling, and the power of suction, which have acted at
> the same time, aid him in recalling the remembrance of it.
> [End excerpt]
> Here is another thematically similar assertion about the memory of the
> elephant. The words are attributed to John Corse who was also
> mentioned in Pete Morris's post.
> Year: 1799
> Journal: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London
> Article: Observations on the Manners, Habits, and Natural History, of
> the Elephant
> Author: John Corse
> Note: Communicated by the Right Hon Sir Joseph Banks Bart KBPRS
> Date of Reading: January 24, 1799
> Start Page 31, Quote Page 37
> Database: Google Books
> https://books.google.com/books?id=n8JeAAAAcAAJ&q=%22so+retentive%22#v=snippet&
> [Begin excerpt]
> It has been stated, that the sagacity of the elephant is so great, and
> his memory so retentive, that when once he has received an injury, or
> been in bondage, and afterwards escapes, it is not possible, by any
> art, again to entrap him.
> [End excerpt]
> Garson
> On Mon, Apr 12, 2021 at 11:20 AM Baker, John <JBAKER at stradley.com> wrote:
>> The Yale Book of Quotations traces this proverb, in the form "Elephants never forget," to the short story "Reginald," by Saki (1904).  Here is an example from James S. Olcott, Animal Electricity 78 (1844) (Google Books):  "The elephant never forgets nor forgives an insulting injury."
>> Although that is the earliest I saw, there are a number of additional examples from the 19th century.  From the Auburn (N.Y.) Weekly American (May 12, 1856) (NewspaperArchive):  "The elephant never forgets an enemy or a friend."
>> The statement clearly had come to be seen as proverbial no later than this example from a children's story in 1884.  From Harper's Young People (Feb. 26, 1884) (Google Books):  ""Elephants never forget," said Alice, more loudly than she intended, so that the Elephant heard, and turned and made a bow to her."
>> John Baker
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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