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. 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, building project, scheme, business venture, facility, etc., considered expensive but without use or value.[1]


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 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] 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. 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.

In modern British English, the term now often refers to a publicly funded building project that is extremely expensive to procure yet fails to deliver on its function and/ or becomes very expensive to maintain.[8][9] The term is often used by those in political opposition to ambitious and controversial architectural 'grand projets' which are expected to become expensive burdens on public finances, such as, for example, the Millennium Dome.[10]

Examples of alleged white elephant projects[edit]

De Witte Olifant, (The White Elephant), one of the ships of Cornelis Tromp. Painting in the Trompenburg
  • Numerous airport projects including
  • The New South China Mall was the largest mall in the world, conceived to accommodate 100,000 visitors a day, but because of poor planning it was 99% empty from its opening[18] until 2015, when it started to fill with shops. Nonetheless, the majority of the mall is still vacant.[19]
  • The U.S. Navy's Alaska-class cruisers were described as "white elephants" because by the time they were commissioned the Japanese heavy cruisers that they were designed to hunt down had already been destroyed.[20]
  • Hughes H-4 Hercules (or "Spruce Goose"), often called Howard Hughes' white elephant before and during the Senate War Investigating Committee. Hughes' associate Noah Dietrich called it a "plywood white elephant".[21]
  • The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is being increasingly viewed as a "white elephant" by the U.S. military, due to its price of $380 billion for nearly 2,500 aircraft in three differing versions, to equip nine nations' air forces, along with lower performance than originally anticipated.[22] The lifetime cost of the F-35 program has since been estimated by the Pentagon at $1.45 trillion.[23]
  • Several stadium projects, including
  • Christ's Hospital railway station was constructed at great expense in 1902 to accommodate Christ's Hospital school, a large independent school that had relocated from London to the West Sussex countryside. It was envisaged that the station would be busy due to the 850 pupils regularly using it, and also the foreseen westward expansion of the nearby town of Horsham. However, the railway company did not realise that the school is a boarding school,[32] and the development of Horsham did not materialise.
  • The Sagrada Família church in Barcelona has been viewed for many years as a monumental white elephant.[33] Construction started in 1882 and the church still remains under construction. The lack of funds, the death of the architect Antoni Gaudí, the Spanish Civil War and the complexity of the project led to delays and interruptions over the years. Completion is not expected until at least 2026, although it functions as a church and tourist attraction in the meantime.
  • The City of Culture of Galicia in Spain is a complex of buildings designed by a group of architects led by the American architect Peter Eisenman, exceed its original planned budget by four times, and in 2013 fourteen years after the project set up, construction was halted.The final two planned buildings out of six remain unfinished.[34]
  • Several incomplete or poorly functioning dams, such as the Bujagali dam (Uganda)[35] and Epupa dam (Angola).[36] Most were constructed by foreign companies in the interest of foreign aid.[37] Although the buildings do not meet expectations, if construction is completed or restarted, they could still provide a contribution to the local population.[38]
  • Brisbane, Australia's Clem Jones Tunnel. The operating company Rivercity motorways posted a A$1.67 billion loss in 2010, largely due to overly optimistic traffic projections. Despite cutting tolls by up to 50% traffic volumes are less than half of the projected 60,000 vehicles a day.[39] However it is expected that motorists will become accustomed to this project much like other infrastructure projects, such as the Gateway Bridge, that were once considered white elephants.
  • The Russky Bridge was built across the Eastern Bosphorus strait, to serve the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting that took place in 2012.[40] The bridge connects the mainland part of Vladivostok with the meeting venue on Russky Island. The world's then-longest cable-stayed bridge originally terminated in a dead end on the island – whose population of 5,000 lack access to telephones, public lighting and water main – and was completed at a cost believed to have exceeded $1 billion USD: the total bill has not been published.[41] The bridge now connects Vladivostok with the new campus of the Far Eastern Federal University.
  • The Cambridgeshire Guided Busway (CGB), a public transit project in East Anglia, whose high construction costs far exceed even the most optimistic projections of revenue. Because the 50,000 tons of concrete used to build the busway is itself white, the project is often referred to as a white elephant despite the project's success.[42][43]
  • Hong Kong has seen a few white elephant projects such as The Hong Kong Express Rail Link[44] and Hong Kong Palace Museum.[45]

See also[edit]


  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. ^ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2872499.stm
  9. ^ https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/18/white-elephants-10-greatest-in-tempo
  10. ^ https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/analysis-and-features/millennium-dome-the-white-elephant-that-learnt-to-fly-8157301.html
  11. ^ "The white elephants that dragged Spain into the red". BBC. 27 July 2012. 
  12. ^ Govan, Fiona (5 October 2011). "Spain's white elephants – how country's airports lie empty". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 7 January 2013. 
  13. ^ Krauss, Clifford (3 October 2004). "End of Era Near in Montreal for White-Elephant Airport". New York Times. Retrieved 14 April 2011. 
  14. ^ "The Expansion Story". Archived from the original on 5 June 2007. Retrieved 25 July 2007. 
  15. ^ "Historical Operation Statistics by Class for the Years: 1985–2006". Archived from the original on 11 July 2007. Retrieved 25 July 2007. 
  16. ^ "New $1 billion runway opens this week, but it's not needed anymore". USA Today. 11 April 2006. Archived from the original on 30 August 2007. Retrieved 25 July 2007. 
  17. ^ Johnson, Dick; Smyser, Katy (October 26, 2012). "Plane Truth: Millions Spent on Rarely-Used Airport". NBC 5 Chicago. Retrieved September 25, 2016. 
  18. ^ Taylor, Adam (5 March 2013). "New South China Mall: Tour A Ghost Mall". Business Insider. Retrieved 14 March 2013. 
  19. ^ Nylander, Johann (28 April 2015). "Chinese 'ghost mall' back from the dead?". CNN. Retrieved 29 April 2015. 
  20. ^ 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. 
  21. ^ Howard Hughes: Hell's Angel By Darwin Porter. Blood Moon Productions, Ltd., 2005 ISBN 0-9748118-1-5 p. 715
  22. ^ "F-35 looking more like white elephant". Agence France-Presse. 14 January 2011. Retrieved 17 April 2011. 
  23. ^ Shalal-Esa, Andrea (29 March 2012). "Exclusive: U.S. sees lifetime cost of F-35 fighter at $1.45 trillion". Reuters. Retrieved 9 July 2012. 
  24. ^ Frawley, Stephen; Adair, Daryl (2014). Managing the Football World Cup. London: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 2013. ISBN 978-1-137-37366-3. 
  25. ^ Neilson, Owen (10 October 2011). "The White Elephants of Italy". 
  26. ^ Guardian Online – Guardian Article regarding Stadio delle Alpi March 2006
  27. ^ CBC News (19 December 2006). "Quebec's Big Owe stadium debt is over". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 25 June 2008. 
  28. ^ "Who Really Wins? – Leviathan Films". Whoreallywins.com. Retrieved 7 January 2013. 
  29. ^ "Mandela Stadium: 'White elephant' after World Cup?". Thegrio.com. 28 June 2010. Retrieved 14 April 2011. 
  30. ^ "World Cup: Are South Africa's stadiums white elephants? – The Sentinel". Tucsonsentinel.com. 7 July 2010. Retrieved 14 April 2011. 
  31. ^ David Smith in Johannesburg (11 July 2010). "World Cup 2010: Sceptics drowned out by another rainbow nation miracle". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 14 April 2011. 
  32. ^ Elton, M.S. (April 1999). "The Horsham & Guildford Direct Railway 1860 - 1965". BackTrack. 13 (4): 178. 
  33. ^ "Review of La Sagrada Família and other religious site reviews in Barcelona". Frommers.com. Retrieved 7 January 2013. 
  34. ^ "Spain's extravagant City of Culture opens amid criticism". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 July 2014. 
  35. ^ Bosshard, Peter (23 June 2002). "Bujagali dam as white elephant". London: Guardian. Retrieved 14 April 2011. 
  36. ^ "Dams as white elephants" (PDF). Retrieved 14 April 2011. 
  37. ^ "Dams as white elephants 2". Internationalrivers.org. Retrieved 14 April 2011. 
  38. ^ "Continuation of white elephants could still provide some relief". Sudantribune.com. Retrieved 14 April 2011. 
  39. ^ Lee, Tracy (1 September 2010). "Rivercity's $1.56bn write-off takes its toll". Theaustralian.com.au. Retrieved 14 April 2011. 
  40. ^ "Russian bridge of trouble opens to world". The New Zealand Herald. 
  41. ^ "Vladivostok locals get no benefit from APEC summit". CBC News. 7 September 2012. 
  42. ^ "Let's Have Real Rail". Leigh Journal. 3 March 2010. Retrieved 14 April 2011. 
  43. ^ "Anti-CGB Opposition and Criticism Group". Noguidedbus.com. 21 March 2009. Retrieved 14 April 2011. 
  44. ^ "Will the HK Express Rail Link become a white elephant?". EJ Insight. 2014-11-03. Retrieved 2017-05-16. 
  45. ^ "Architecture and design news from CLAD - New designs unveiled for controversial Hong Kong Palace Museum". Retrieved 2017-05-16. 

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