White Elephant

Meaning of Idiom ‘White Elephant’

A white elephant is an unwanted, useless, and troublesome possession or item that is too expensive or too much work to maintain and which is not worth the effort. 1Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.,2Ayto, John. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms. Oxford: Oxford U, 2010.,3Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth M. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms. Ware: Wordsworth, 1995.,4Bengelsdorf, Peter. Idioms in the News – 1,000 Phrases, Real Examples. N.p.: Amz Digital Services, 2012.


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Usage

White elephant is sometimes confused with the elephant in the room to become the white elephant in the room. It is quite possible for these idioms to merge sensibly, however. An unwanted item, as a white elephant, could also be an item no one wants to talk about, as the elephant in the room. See the video above for full explanation.

White elephant is often used in regard to worthless and problematic buildings.

Examples Of Use

“The beach house is a white elephant that has been sitting for years. The roof needs work and I don’t know what else. I don’t know why you insisted we buy it.”

“I would never want my own swimming pool. They’re just big white elephants. And, to top it off, all the relatives would constantly want to visit so they could use it.”

“In terms of white elephant gifts, I think giving someone a pet is a big faux pas. Do you realize how much responsibility you’re handing someone?”

“We’ve been in the new building for two years now. What about the white elephant in the room? We haven’t even though about what we’re going to do with the old property.”

Origin

This idiom comes from an ancient custom in Thailand, then Siam. White albino elephants were considered sacred and could only be owned by the king. It was forbidden, as well, to slaughter them or make them do work. If the king was unhappy with one of his subjects, he would give them a white elephant. Such a gift, coming from the king, could not be given away! The cost of feeding and caring for the elephant was immense and would surely ruin the subject. These stories were known in England as early as the 1600s but began to be used idiomatically during the 1800s. 5Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.,6Bengelsdorf, Peter. Idioms in the News – 1,000 Phrases, Real Examples. N.p.: Amz Digital Services, 2012.

It has been claimed that Ezra Cornell popularized the term as early as 1828 during his habitual social gatherings.

Also associated with this idiom is a white elephant party or gift exchange, sometimes called a Yankee swap or Dirty Santa where guests bring a useless wrapped present and participants pick and open presents from a table. 7Wikipedia contributors. “White elephant gift exchange.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Jan. 2020. Web. 25 Feb. 2020.

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Sources   [ + ]

1. Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
2. Ayto, John. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms. Oxford: Oxford U, 2010.
3. Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth M. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms. Ware: Wordsworth, 1995.
4, 6. Bengelsdorf, Peter. Idioms in the News – 1,000 Phrases, Real Examples. N.p.: Amz Digital Services, 2012.
5. Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
7. Wikipedia contributors. “White elephant gift exchange.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Jan. 2020. Web. 25 Feb. 2020.