In a column I wrote for an upcoming issue, I deigned to use a cliché about a “900 pound gorilla” to describe a certain software company in a certain market. Long after the column had weaved its way to final form, an overzealous staffer pointed out that the majority of Google references to the joke that the cliche is derived from used the weight of 800 pounds. Furthermore, since the “correct” 800-pound metaphor was overused, the story should be reworked. He referenced this 1999 editorial from the Chattanooga Times Free Press as support for his position., which notes with humor the wide-ranging weights assigned to the proverbial beast.
Now, I'm a strong believer in a well-used cliché. Such well-worn constructs are a way of drawing up specific imagery in readers' and listeners' minds, and I specifically used the gorilla cliché as part of a comparative construct: “Is Siebel the 900-pound gorilla of customer relationship management–or more like King Kong just before his fall?” And, as Google will confirm, many people have used the 900-pound weight when referrring to the primate who sits wherever he wants.
But, that's beside the point. The weight is a fictional construct. What is the definitive source for the weight of a metaphorical gorilla? The New York Times apparently has the 800-pound version of the great ape in its stylebook; the pulpier Newsday uses 900. The Washington Post's gorilla has wild weight swings, from as little as 500 to as much as 3,000 pounds.
“The weight must be regional,” I told him. “He must gain weight as he moves down the east coast, eating small children and copy editors.”