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November 17th, 2004

A how-many-pound gorilla? / could of

by Barbara Wallraff

Garth Kriewall, of Port Huron, Mich., writes: “A friend said something about a 500-pound gorilla the other day, and I responded, ‘The gorilla weighs 800 pounds.’ He said no, it was a 500-pound gorilla. We turn to you: Just how big is the gorilla? And where did he (she?) come from? Why a gorilla rather than, say, an ox or a manatee?”

Dear Garth: In real life, according to Dr. Colleen McCann, the chief primatologist at the Bronx Zoo, a wild adult male gorilla might weigh 400 pounds, and a typical adult female weighs about half that. So if you have in mind an animal that makes a huge impression, it should be male. But the gorilla in expressions like “the X-pound gorilla that is the United States” isn’t real -- it’s a gorilla of the imagination. It seems to have originated in a couple of children’s jokes: “Where does an X-pound gorilla sit?” “Anywhere it wants to.” And “What do you call an X-pound gorilla?” “Sir.”

The Internet, as it happens, abounds in imaginary gorillas. Gorilla jokes are much more widespread online than manatee jokes. (Here’s one of the latter, though: “Who held the baby manatee for ransom?” “Squidnappers.”) Online, ox jokes are scarcer than henteeth. What can I say? Gorillas seem to be just plain funnier than manatees and oxen. But many non-joking references to big gorillas turn up online too. An “X-pound gorilla” is often used to mean much the same thing as the metaphorical “elephant in the room”: something obvious that people aren’t talking about.

All right, so how big is the gorilla? The majority of people who use the expression agree with you: 800 pounds is the weight most often given. In fact, 800-pound gorillas turn up nearly seven times as often as gorillas of the second most common weight -- which, your friend will be glad to know, is 500 pounds. Curiously, I found references to puny 100-pound gorillas that sleep anywhere they want. The largest gorilla I found was a “zillion-ton” one. The joke and the metaphor have gone global by now: The weight of some online gorillas is given in kilos. A few of these are even 364-kilo gorillas -- that is, 800-pound ones.

David Janower, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “I see the locution ‘could of’ more and more in novels. I suspect it’s an attempt to make a character sound colloquial. But I’m afraid that the younger generation has no idea that ‘could of’ is improper. Do you have an opinion about this?”

Dear David: You bet I do. Once in a blue moon, “could of” actually is correct -- for instance, “I gathered up what I could of my possessions, and fled.” But almost always it should be “could have” instead: “I could have been in big trouble!” English isn’t a phonetic language. What someone writes on a page isn’t an exact guide to what readers will hear in their minds or say aloud. Writing “could of” in sentences like my second example just shows that the writer lacks a clear understanding of how English works.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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