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White elephant

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A white elephant is a possession that its owner cannot dispose of without extreme difficulty, and whose cost, particularly that of maintenance, is out of proportion to its usefulness. In modern usage, it is a metaphor used to describe an object, construction project, scheme, business venture, facility, etc. considered expensive but without equivalent utility or value relative to its capital (acquisition) and/or operational (maintenance) costs.[1]

Historical background[edit]

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 (Siam), 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 who 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 animal that was expensive to maintain, could not be given away, and could not be 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 17th century and became widespread in the 19th century.[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-à-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]

Modern usage[edit]

In modern usage, the term now often refers in addition to an extremely expensive building project that fails to deliver on its function 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 stadiums.[16][17] The American Oakland Athletics baseball team has used a white elephant as a symbol and usually its main or alternate logo since 1902, originally in sarcastic defiance of John McGraw's 1902 characterization of the new team as a "white elephant".[18] The Al Maktoum International Airport on the outskirts of Dubai has also been named a white elephant.[19] Examples of rail-related white elephants include in Japan, where it was feared that the Yurikamome at Odaiba would end up as a multibillion-yen white elephant,[20] and in Singapore, paper cutouts of white elephants were placed next to the completed but unopened Buangkok MRT station on the North East Line in 2005, in protest at its non-opening. The station eventually opened the following year.[21] White Elephant is also a name of a former Polish astronomical observatory built in the Carpathian Mountains in 1938 (now Ukraine).

The term has also been applied to outdated or underperforming military projects like the U.S. Navy's Alaska-class cruiser.[22][23] In Austria, the term "white elephant" means workers who have little or no use, but cannot be dismissed.[24][circular reference]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Home : Oxford English Dictionary". oxforddictionaries.com. Archived from the original on 10 May 2013. Retrieved 25 April 2013.
  2. ^ "Royal Elephant Stable" Archived 9 March 2021 at the Wayback Machine. Thai Elephant Conservation Center.
  3. ^ Leider, Jacques P. (December 2011). "A Kingship by Merit and Cosmic Investiture". Journal of Burma Studies. 15 (2). doi:10.1353/jbs.2011.0012. S2CID 153995925.
  4. ^ Ammer, Christine (2013). The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Second Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0547677538.
  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 (23 June 2014). "Two-and-a-half Idioms – the History and Etymology of 'White Elephants'". Early Sports 'n' Pop-Culture History Blog. Archived from the original on 1 March 2021. Retrieved 25 June 2014.
  7. ^ Brown, Peter Jensen (28 June 2014). "Two-and-a-Half More Idioms – "White Elephants" and Yankee Swaps". Early Sports 'n' Pop-Culture History Blog. Archived from the original on 8 November 2020. Retrieved 3 July 2014.
  8. ^ Roberta Jeeves, White Elephant Rules. Archived 4 October 2017 at the Wayback Machine.
  9. ^ "White elephants and worthwhile causes". 5 June 2003. Archived from the original on 23 January 2021. Retrieved 12 September 2020 – via news.bbc.co.uk.
  10. ^ Shariatmadari, David (18 July 2013). "The 10 greatest white elephants | David Shariatmadari". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 28 July 2022. Retrieved 4 January 2017 – via www.theguardian.com.
  11. ^ Govan, Fiona (5 October 2011). "Spain's white elephants – how country's airports lie empty". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 25 August 2012. Retrieved 7 January 2013.
  12. ^ "Dams as white elephants" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2 October 2011. Retrieved 14 April 2011.
  13. ^ Tim Ellis (8 November 2013). "State's Longest Bridge Nears Completion, But Budget Cuts May Limit Army's Ability to Use It". KUAC. Archived from the original on 4 October 2017. Retrieved 5 August 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. Archived from the original on 9 March 2013. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
  16. ^ Guardian Online. Archived 6 August 2007 at the Wayback Machine – 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. Archived from the original on 8 November 2010. Retrieved 14 April 2011.
  18. ^ John Odell. "The Elephant in the Room". Baseball Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on 18 April 2021. Retrieved 18 April 2021.
  19. ^ "After 'Boris Island': 10 other airport follies". Archived from the original on 30 June 2022. Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  20. ^ Iwata, Kazuaki (June 1998). "Tokyo's New Waterfront Transit System" (PDF). Japan Rail and Transport Review. Archived (PDF) from the original on 7 December 2022. Retrieved 14 May 2023.
  21. ^ "Residents Bring Up 'White Elephant' Buangkok MRT During Minister's Visit". SafeTrolley. 7 November 2020. Archived from the original on 3 July 2022. Retrieved 2 August 2022.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ "Looking more like white elephant". Agence France-Presse. 14 January 2011. Archived from the original on 17 March 2011. Retrieved 17 April 2011.
  24. ^ de:Weißer Elefant#Redewendung

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]