The title, Water for Elephants, is almost a little inside joke with the reader… once we've finished the book, that is. Jacob, the book's narrator and protagonist, worked as a vet and trainer of sorts at a circus. If anyone knows about elephant training, it's him. That gives him certain bragging rights in his old age, but Jacob keeps his past to himself, sharing it only with us, the readers, and one of the kinder nurses, Rosemary.
Meanwhile, another guy at the nursing home, McGuinty, tries to claim credit for the glamour and hard knocks that come with living a circus life by claiming to have worked in one. To prove his point, McGuinty says that he "used to carry water for the elephants" (1.40).
Those who don't know about circuses take McGuinty at his word, but Jacob knows better: you can't carry water for elephants. As he says, "Carried water for the elephants indeed. Do you have any idea how much an elephant drinks?" (1.59). Carrying water for elephants would be a near impossible task. (Symbolism, anyone?)
What's more, once you read the book, you realize that what elephants really like to drink is alcohol! Rosie would much rather have gin than water, and any elephant trainer worth his salt would know that.
Let's look at it this way: McGuinty has created an "illusion" (7.204) by using the phrase "water for elephants," just like the people at the circus practiced deception about how easy their tricks were and how magical their show was. When Jacob looks down on McGuinty for lying, isn't he being a bit hypocritical, then?
So why call the book Water for Elephants? Well, the phrase reinforces Jacob's association with circuses. But also, by carrying the theme of deceit, the title forces us to question the truthfulness of Jacob's story. Was Jacob really with the circus? We have to take his word for it. Think about what Rosemary says: "Sometimes when you get older – and I'm not talking about you, I'm talking generally, because everyone ages differently – things you think on and wish on start to seem real. And then you believe them [ … ]" (13.68). Jacob's past is "real" to him, but is it any more than that? Should we trust Jacob's version of his life story, or is it all just a clever illusion? Dun dun dun.