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.
The term derives from the sacred white elephants kept by Southeast Asian monarchs in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. 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). 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. 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.
The expressions "white elephant" and "gift of a white elephant" came into common use in the middle of the nineteenth century. The phrase was attached to "white elephant swaps" and "white elephant sales" in the early twentieth century. 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. 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.
Examples of alleged white elephant projects
- Numerous airport projects including
- Ciudad Real Central Airport, just south of Madrid
- Castellón–Costa Azahar Airport north of Valencia and the Huesca-Pirineos Airport, both of which long had no scheduled commercial flights and still have very few.
- Montréal–Mirabel International Airport, North America's largest airport
- Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, Sri Lanka
- Lambert–St. Louis International Airport runway 11/29
- Gary/Chicago International Airport 
- 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 until 2015, when it started to fill with shops. Nonetheless, the majority of the mall is still vacant.
- 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.
- 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".
- 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. The lifetime cost of the F-35 program has since been estimated by the Pentagon at $1.45 trillion.
- 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, 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. 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.
- Several incomplete or poorly functioning dams, such as the Bujagali dam (Uganda) and Epupa dam (Angola). Most were constructed by foreign companies in the interest of foreign aid. Although the buildings do not meet expectations, if construction is completed or restarted, they could still provide a contribution to the local population.
- 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. 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. 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. 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.
- Hong Kong has seen a few white elephant projects such as The Hong Kong Express Rail Link and Hong Kong Palace Museum.
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- "Will the HK Express Rail Link become a white elephant?". EJ Insight. 2014-11-03. Retrieved 2017-05-16.
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- 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.
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