A grammar book for Japanese high school students gives the following example sentence:

Her memory is like an elephant's (memory).

Question: Is "Somebody's memory is like an elephant's" an idiom?

I guess that, in the UK, there is a legend that elephants have a good memory.

  • 2
    Yes and no. The expression is just an elephant's memory for the reason you guessed. Dec 31, 2023 at 0:08
  • @YosefBaskin Thank you. Is there an English idiom that has the opposite meaning of an elephant's memory?
    – Kaguyahime
    Dec 31, 2023 at 1:49
  • 3
    Goldfish are said to have a very short memory. (it's not particularly scientific) you could say "memory like a goldfish".
    – James K
    Dec 31, 2023 at 7:23
  • 5
    Not just the UK; this article from Scientific American discusses the widely-held belief that 'elephants never forget'. Dec 31, 2023 at 8:55
  • Note, however, that the question sentence is a bit odd in having the second"memory". I would expect simply "Her memory is like an elephant's". Jan 1 at 23:14

3 Answers 3


There is a short saying, "An elephant never forgets" (see this), and the saying is related.

The saying is relatively recent, and originally relates to the idea that if you have hurt an elephant it will never forgive you, and so it referred to someone who holds a grudge. More recently it is used more positively to mean someone with a very good memory in general.

For a recent example, see the movie "Zootopia", where it is parodied.

By contrast, goldfish are said to have a very short memory, 10 seconds is sometimes mentioned. Not scientifically true, but if you say someone's memory is like a goldfish's, it would mean they forget everything. Also, a "memory like a sieve" has lots of "holes".

  • 2
    Interestingly their is an older form of the saying which uses "camel" instead of "elephant", but the idea was the same.
    – James K
    Dec 31, 2023 at 0:14
  • 1
    – TimR
    Dec 31, 2023 at 10:10

According to the Cambridge Dictionary website, the phrase "have a memory like an elephant" is indeed an idiom.

You can check the page here.


It's a simile. I don't consider it an idiom, as it is completely compositional. It does reference "common knowledge" that is of questionable empirical grounds, and it could be considered a cliche, but cliches and idioms are different.

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