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."
Herodotus mentions the (African) elephant, which in ancient times and until 7c. C.E. was found north of the Sahara as well. Frazer (notes to Pausanias's "Description of Greece," 1898) writes that "Ptolemy Philadelphius, king of Egypt (283-247 B.C.), was first to tame the African elephant and use it in war; his elephants were brought from Nubia," and the Carthaginians probably borrowed the idea from him; "for in the Carthaginian army which defeated Regulus in 255 B.C. there were about 100 elephants .... It was easy for the Carthaginians to procure elephants, since in antiquity the animal was found native in the regions of North Africa now known as Tripoli and Morocco (Pliny, N.H. viii.32)."
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.