White elephant

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Not to be confused with Elephant in the room.
For other uses, see White elephant (disambiguation).
The British East Africa Company came to regard Uganda as a white elephant when internal conflict broke out in 1892 and rendered the company ineffective in administration of the territory.

A white elephant is a possession which its owner cannot dispose of and whose cost, particularly that of maintenance, is out of proportion to its usefulness. The term derives from the story that the kings of Siam, now Thailand, were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance. In modern usage, it is an object, scheme, business venture, facility, etc., considered without use or value.[1]


A white elephant at the Amarapura Palace in 1855.

The term derives from the sacred white elephants kept by Southeast Asian monarchs in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.[2] To possess a white elephant was regarded (and is still regarded in Thailand and Burma) as a sign that the monarch reigned with justice and power, and that the kingdom was blessed with peace and prosperity. The opulence expected of anyone that owned a beast of such stature was great. Monarchs often exemplified their possession of white elephants in their formal titles (e.g., Hsinbyushin, lit. "Lord of the White Elephant" and the third monarch of the Konbaung dynasty).[3]

White elephants are linked to Hindu cosmology, the mount of Indra, king of the Vedic deities is Airavata, a white elephant. White elephants are also intricately linked to Buddhist cosmology, the mount of Sakka's (a Buddhist deity and ruler of the Tavatimsa heaven) is a three-headed white elephant named Airavata.[3] Albino elephants exist in nature, usually being reddish-brown or pink.[4]

The tradition derives from tales that associate a white elephant with the birth of the Buddha, as his mother was reputed to have dreamed of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower, a common symbol of wisdom and purity, on the eve of giving birth.[5] Because the animals were considered sacred and laws protected them from labor, receiving a gift of a white elephant from a monarch was simultaneously a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch's favour, and a curse because the recipient now had an expensive-to-maintain animal he could not give away and could not put to much practical use.

The Order of the White Elephant consists of eight grades of medals issued by the government of Thailand. There are also white elephants in Nepal.

In the West, the term "white elephant" relating to an expensive burden that fails to meet expectations, was popularized following P. T. Barnum's experience with an elephant named Toung Taloung that he billed as the "Sacred White Elephant of Burma". After much effort and great expense, Barnum finally acquired the animal from the King of Siam only to discover that his "white elephant" was actually dirty grey in color with a few pink spots.[6]

The expressions "white elephant" and "gift of a white elephant" came into common use in the middle of the nineteenth century.[7] The phrase was attached to "white elephant swaps" and "white elephant sales" in the early twentieth century.[8] Many church bazaars held “white elephant sales” where donors could unload unwanted bric-a-brac, generating profit from the phenomenon that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Many organizational and church fairs still use the term today. In general use a “white elephant” usually refers to an item that’s not useful (decorative) but may be expensive and odd.

Alleged white elephant projects[edit]

De Witte Olifant, (The White Elephant), one of the ships of Cornelis Tromp. Painting in the Trompenburg

See also[edit]


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