In Russian, the bishop on a chessboard is known as the elephant. Photograph: Giulio Origlia/Getty Images
his week Tony Blair warned that Labour should not fall into the “elephant trap” of agreeing to a general election, and instead should work to arrange a second referendum. Who knew there was an elephant in the room in the first place?
The word “trap” supposedly comes from the Old German for a flight of stairs or a step: it is designed for an animal to tread on. Elephants being very large, one practical way to trap them is a pitfall: a hole dug in the ground and covered over with branches and leaves. However, the metaphorical sense of an “elephant trap” is rather slanderous to the noble grey giant: it means a trap, specifically, that only a fool would fall into.
This usage gained currency in the late 19th century, no doubt owing to the popularity of reports about literal elephant traps from explorers such as Dr Livingstone.
In chess, meanwhile, there is a famous “elephant trap” in the Queen’s Gambit, whereby inexperienced players may lose a piece. (In the Russian game, the bishop is known as the elephant.) So was Blair implying that Jeremy Corbyn was a magnificent large beast with a long memory, or simply a blundering idiot?