White elephant

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A white elephant outside of Yangon in 2013.

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. In modern usage, it is an object, building project, scheme, business venture, facility, etc., considered expensive but without use or value.[1]


A white elephant at the Amarapura Palace in 1855
The British East Africa Company came to regard Uganda as a white elephant when internal conflict made administration of the territory impossible

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] 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.

In the West, the term "white elephant" relating to an expensive burden that fails to meet expectations, was first used in the 1600s and became widespread in the 1800s.[4] According to one source it 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.[5]

The expressions "white elephant" and "gift of a white elephant" came into common use in the middle of the nineteenth century.[6] The phrase was attached to "white elephant swaps" and "white elephant sales" in the early twentieth century.[7] 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" and the term has continued to be used in this context.[8]

In modern British English, the term now often refers in addition to an extremely expensive building project that fails to deliver on its function and/or becomes very costly to maintain.[9][10] Examples include prestigious but uneconomic infrastructure projects such as airports,[11] dams,[12] bridges,[13][14] shopping malls[15] and football stadia built for the FIFA World Cup.[16][17] The term has also been applied to outdated or underperforming military projects like the U.S. Navy's Alaska-class cruiser[18][19] In Austria, the term "white elephant" means workers who have little or no use, but are not terminable.[20][better source needed]

See also


  1. ^ "Home : Oxford English Dictionary". oxforddictionaries.com. Retrieved 25 April 2013. 
  2. ^ "Royal Elephant Stable". Thai Elephant Conservation Center.
  3. ^ Leider, Jacques P. (December 2011). "A Kingship by Merit and Cosmic Investiture". Journal of Burma Studies. 15 (2). 
  4. ^ Ammer, Christine (2013). The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Second Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 0547677537. 
  5. ^ Harding, Les (1999). Elephant Story: Jumbo and P.T. Barnum Under the Big Top. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland. p. 110. ISBN 0786406321. 
  6. ^ Brown, Peter Jensen. "Two-and-a-half Idioms – the History and Etymology of 'White Elephants'". Early Sports 'n' Pop-Culture History Blog. Retrieved 25 June 2014. 
  7. ^ Brown, Peter Jensen. "Two-and-a-Half More Idioms – "White Elephants" and Yankee Swaps". Early Sports 'n' Pop-Culture History Blog. Retrieved 3 July 2014. 
  8. ^ Roberta Jeeves, White Elephant Rules
  9. ^ BBC news
  10. ^ The Guardian
  11. ^ Govan, Fiona (5 October 2011). "Spain's white elephants – how country's airports lie empty". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 7 January 2013. 
  12. ^ "Dams as white elephants" (PDF). Retrieved 14 April 2011. 
  13. ^ Tim Ellis (November 8, 2013). "State's Longest Bridge Nears Completion, But Budget Cuts May Limit Army's Ability to Use It". KUAC. Retrieved August 5, 2014. 
  14. ^ "Russian bridge of trouble opens to world". The New Zealand Herald. 
  15. ^ Taylor, Adam (5 March 2013). "New South China Mall: Tour A Ghost Mall". Business Insider. Retrieved 14 March 2013. 
  16. ^ Guardian Online – Guardian Article regarding Stadio delle Alpi March 2006
  17. ^ "World Cup: Are South Africa's stadiums white elephants? – The Sentinel". Tucsonsentinel.com. 7 July 2010. Retrieved 14 April 2011. 
  18. ^ Morison, Samuel Loring; Morison, Samuel Eliot; Polmar, Norman (2005). Illustrated Directory of Warships of the World: From 1860 to the Present. ABC-CLIO. p. 85. ISBN 1-85109-857-7. 
  19. ^ Looking more like white elephant |publisher=Agence France-Presse |date=14 January 2011 |url=http://www.defencetalk.com/f-35-looking-more-like-white-elephant-31347/ |accessdate=17 April 2011}}
  20. ^ de:Weißer Elefant#Redewendung

Further reading

  • Jeffrey A. McNeely; Paul Spencer Sochaczewski (1995). "Chapter 9: Ganesh the Potbellied Elephant God". Soul of the Tiger: Searching for Nature's Answers in Southeast Asia (Reprint ed.). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. pp. 91–112. ISBN 9780824816698. OCLC 299810414.  Contains a chapter on the white elephant in Southeast Asia.
  • Paul Spencer Sochaczewski (2008). The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen: Surprising Asian People, Places, and Things That Go Bump in the Night. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet. pp. 69–164. ISBN 9789814217743. OCLC 259252939.  Contains a long chapter on how Burmese generals tried to use the white elephant to consolidate power, also looks at the cosmological origins of the animal.

External links

  • Media related to White elephants at Wikimedia Commons
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