Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

800 Pound Gorilla

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 26, 2014

When a corporation, group, or individual is so powerful that it feels it can act without regards for the rights of others, or feels it is above the law, it’s said that the corporation, group, or individual is an 800 pound gorilla … or a 900 pound gorilla or even larger,depending on the source.

On June 15, 2012, A.J. Kohn at marketingland.com wrote about the previous seven days that had been dominated by Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter. Between the study about the percentage of company twitter account followers that were bots, Apple’s passbook app, Google’s Wallet 2.0, Facebook’s mobile acquisition, and more, all other news seemed locked out of news feeds and news outlets. The title of the article was aptly titled, “The Week Of The 900 Pound Gorilla.”

An example of a person fitting the bill is found in the article by John Friedman of MarketWatch published on February 11, 2011 where he discussed what was going on at CBS. Sean McManus had been heading up the news and sports divisions at CBS News up until that point. He surrendered his news division responsibilities which were immediately shouldered by David Rhodes who had previously been with Fox News.

Katie Couric, who was the evening news anchor, had come to CBS from NBC’s top-rated “Today” show, and even though CBS was in third place among the networks at the time, it was felt that her star power was the WOW factor other networks craved but couldn’t deliver. Keeping Katie Couric as the CBS Evening News anchor was crucial to CBS’ plans to move up the ladder. The article was titled, “Katie Couric: CBS’s 900-Pound Gorilla.”

Over the years, the gorilla’s weight has swung wildly as evidenced by these magazine and newspaper quotes:

I’m the 400-pound gorilla on defense policy, said [House Armed Services Committee chair Les] Aspin.”
~ Los Angeles Times, April 1991

One reluctant program director, Malcolm Wall of station KETA in Oklahoma City, called [The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour] a 3,000-pound gorilla.
~ The New York Times, December 1987

Like the proverbial 2,000 pound gorilla, IBM can sit anywhere it wants to in the computer industry.
~ Modern Office Technology, April 1986

Sometimes trouble leaps up in your face like a 500-pound gorilla.
~ National Law Journal, July 1984

Much in the manner of 300-pound gorillas, ex-secretaries of state can do about anything they choose, of course.
~ The Washington Post, September 1982

Some online sources claim that the idiom is part of a joke dating back to 1971 although no comedian or comedy show reference is included with the information. That being said, in the book, “The Psychology Of Being Human” by Elton B. McNeil and published by Canfield Press in 1974, the following passage is found on page 363.

As the old joke goes: “Where does a 500-pound gorilla sleep? Anywhere he wants to.” It’s the same with inducing the hypnotic trance, You can do it anywhere you want to. The usual methods of focusing attention on an object or telling people they are getting sleeping are helpful, but unnecessary.

For the author to refer to the joke as an “old joke” it can hardly be one that was first told in 1971 as some sources claim. The fact of the matter is that the expression is found in Chapter 3 “Identity” of Lee Thayer’s book, “Communication!” published in 1968, where the author writes:

“Identity” is frequently the 800-pound gorilla in communication. It is as complex as it is potent, as we will see. It always plays a role in communication.

The joke shows up in “The Railway Clerk” of 1968 and published by the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express and Station Employees.  And the idiom shows up in the 1956 “Congressional Quarterly” on page 267 of this publication as follows:

“It’s like having a 500-pound gorilla locked up in the room with you,” noted one Republican Senate aide. “You can’t control it, and you can’t get it out because people want it there. So you have to try to replace it with something that will look as fierce …”

Despite hours of research, no earlier published version of this idiom was found, however, that it was used in 1956 and that it was expected that the sense of the idiom would be understood. Idiomation is able to track the expression to at least 1950.  Idiomation welcomes any linkage to earlier published versions of this idiom. And so, Idiomation pegs this expression to 1950, with reservations.

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2 Responses to “800 Pound Gorilla”

  1. mutanatia said

    Why do you think the number of pounds the gorilla has is not standardized?

    • While I can’t say for certain why the gorilla’s weight hasn’t been standardized, I suspect it has to do with a couple factors.

      1. Most people are unable to say how much an adult gorilla weighs; and

      NOTE: Wild male gorillas weigh 135 to 180 kg (298 to 397 lb) while adult females usually weigh half as much as adult males at 68–113 kg (150–249 lb).

      2. Many people associate size with power. For example, India’s army has man power of 11,325,000 soldiers while Egypt’s army has man power of 468,500 soldiers. The assumption made by most people is that India (with the larger army) would win in a battle against Egypt (with the smaller army).

      Perhaps other readers and visitors to Idiomation know the answer to your question.

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