Friday, September 11, 2009

‘The 800-pound gorilla in the room’ is probably more like 400 pounds

While working on a consumer electronics story this week for Investor’s Business Daily, a source described one company as being the “600 pound gorilla” in a certain technology.
I thought the expression was “800 pound gorilla.”
Throughout my career as a business and technology journalist, I’ve heard people bandy about the big gorilla metaphor using various weights for the ape. Some company or other is either the 500-, 600-, 800- or 1,000-pound gorilla
So how much does that proverbial gorilla in the room actually weigh.
It might depend on the expression.
One use of the expression “800-pound gorilla” means a dominant company or entity that seems unbeatable in a certain industry or sphere of activity. For instance: “Microsoft is the 800-pound gorilla in desktop software” or “Google is the 800-pound gorilla in Internet search.”
This is based on an old joke: “Where does the 800-pound gorilla sit?”
Answer: “Anywhere he wants to.”
The other use of the expression is to describe a major concern or sensitive issue that no one wants to discuss. For example, Axa Equitable uses a talking gorilla in its TV ads to discuss life insurance and financial planning with reluctant listeners. “But what do I know? I’m just the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” he says at the end of the ads. (See the commercials here and here.)
In this usage, the 800-pound gorilla is just a substitute for the “elephant in the room.”
But I digress.
The wide range of weights for the metaphorical gorilla is the result of ignorance, some people choosing to be accurate and others wanting to wildly exaggerate.
Adult male gorillas generally weigh in at 310 to 450 pounds. (Adult females average about 220 pounds.) In the wild, occasionally a 500-pound silverback gorilla is recorded. Obese gorillas in captivity have reached 600 pounds, according to Wikipedia.
A Google search reveals that 800-pound gorilla is the most common reference for a company, followed by 1,000-pound gorilla and 600-pound gorilla.
The question of how much the metaphorical gorilla weighs has been around for awhile. The American Journalism Review published an article on the subject called “Honey, I Blew Up the Gorilla” in November 1999. The Wall Street Journal weighed in on the matter in a April 2005 article called “Retirement Is Long Overdue For Some Aging Statistics.”

Illustration by Kern Creative Group of Muncie, Ind.

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