elephant:  Elephants were named from their tusks. Greek eléphās (probably a borrowing from a non-Indo-European language) meant originally ‘ivory’ (hence chryselephantine ‘of gold and ivory’ ). Only later did it come to denote the animal itself, and it passed in this sense into Latin as elephantus. By post-classical times this had become *olifantus, and it is a measure of the unfamiliarity of the beast in northern Europe in the first millenium AD that when Old English acquired the word, as olfend, it was used for the ‘camel’.
Old French also had olifant (referring to the ‘elephant’ this time) and passed it on to English as olifaunt. It was not until the 14th century that, under the influence of the classical Latin form, this began to change to elephant. In the 16th and 17th centuries there was a learned revival of the sense ‘ivory’: Alexander Pope, for instance, in his translation of the Odyssey 1725, refers to ‘the handle … with steel and polish’d elephant adorn’d’.
The notion of the white elephant as ‘something unwanted’ arose apparently from the practice of the kings of Siam presenting courtiers who had incurred their displeasure with real white elephants, the cost of whose proper upkeep was ruinously high.
c. 1300, olyfaunt, from Old French olifant (12c., Modern French éléphant), from Latin elephantus, from Greek elephas (genitive elephantos) "elephant; ivory," probably from a non-Indo-European language, likely via Phoenician (compare Hamitic elu "elephant," source of the word for it in many Semitic languages, or possibly from Sanskrit ibhah "elephant").
Re-spelled after 1550 on Latin model. Cognate with the common term for the animal in Romanic and Germanic; Slavic words (for example Polish slon', Russian slonu are from a different word. Old English had it as elpend, and compare elpendban, elpentoð "ivory," but a confusion of exotic animals led to olfend "camel."
As an emblem of the Republican Party in U.S. politics, 1860. To see the elephant "be acquainted with life, gain knowledge by experience" is an American English colloquialism from 1835. The elephant joke was popular 1960s-70s.