A White Elephant: Definition, Meaning and Origin

Last Updated on
November 2, 2023

The expression "a white elephant" refers to something that is costly, difficult to maintain, and more trouble than it's worth. In modern contexts, "a white elephant" might be used to describe anything from a large, unwieldy property to a pricey and impractical vehicle or an unwanted and burdensome gift. This idiom could be utilized in various settings, from casual conversations to more formal discussions, indicating an object or situation that presents a deceptive or misleading appearance of value.

In short:

"A white elephant" refers to a possession which is expensive to maintain, not very useful, and difficult to get rid of.

What Does "A White Elephant" Mean?

The idiom "a white elephant" is a phrase that describes something that, although valuable or unique, is also a burden or costly to keep. People use it to describe items or situations with more trouble than they're worth. Here's a closer look at its meanings:

  • An item that is expensive and hard to maintain or get rid of.
  • A gift that may be considered a burden rather than something beneficial.
  • Something that stands out because of its size or cost but is not very useful.

So, if someone says they have "a white elephant" on their hands, they might be talking about a fancy car that breaks down all the time or a large house that costs a lot to heat during the winter.

Where Does "A White Elephant" Come From?

The phrase originated from ancient Asian traditions, specifically from the Siam Kingdom (modern-day Thailand), where a monarch would give a rare white elephant to a courtier who displeased him, making it a burdensome gift. Though seemingly generous and benevolent, the gift of a white elephant was essentially a punishment. While splendid, the rare creature was expensive to care for and could not be put to practical use (like labor) due to its sacred status, causing financial and logistical problems for the recipient.

Historical Example

"A white elephant the King of Siam had, among the rest, was the occasion of his ruin, as is affirmed, having caused bloody wars, thus much concerning the elephants."

- The History of Persia by Mohammed Mirkhond, 1715

10 Examples of "A White Elephant" in Sentences

To better understand how the idiom is used in various situations, let's look at some example sentences:

  • My grandmother's old piano is such a white elephant; it takes up so much space, yet no one can play it.
  • I spent years investing in that business venture, only to find it was a white elephant and all for naught.
  • The town's new stadium turned out to be a white elephant; it's too big and rarely used.
  • She gifted me an antique vase, but it's a white elephant as I have no place to keep it.
  • Everyone said their new gadget was a must-have, but for me, it's just a white elephant.
  • I initially thought the old sewing machine was a white elephant, but it did come in handy during the pandemic.
  • My uncle's yacht seems fancy, but it's a white elephant with all the required maintenance.
  • The museum's latest art installation is impressive, but critics argue it's a white elephant that doesn't fit the collection.
  • Why I decided to keep that old white elephant of a car is nunya business.
  • That giant teddy bear seemed like a cute gift at the fair, but now it's a white elephant in my small bedroom.

Examples of "A White Elephant" in Pop Culture

The idiom has made its mark in popular culture as well. Here are a few instances:

  • The "White Elephant Gift Exchange" is a popular holiday game where people exchange often humorous or impractical gifts.
  • The movie "Dumbo" showcases a literal white elephant being considered a burden initially due to its big ears, echoing the idiom's meaning.
  • Several documentaries and news segments have referred to costly, unused stadiums built for events like the Olympics as white elephants.

Synonyms: Other Ways to Say "A White Elephant"

  • An albatross around one's neck
  • A millstone
  • A burden
  • A money pit

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "A White Elephant":

  • What does "a white elephant" mean?

The idiom refers to an item or situation that is more trouble than it's worth or an unwanted gift that is difficult to dispose of.

  • Where did the phrase originate?

It originated from ancient Asian cultures where white elephants were considered sacred but also expensive to maintain.

  • Are white elephants real?

Yes, white elephants are real, but they're actually light gray with spots. They're rare and have been revered in some cultures.

  • Why is "white elephant gift exchange" called that?

It's named after the idiom because participants often give humorous or impractical gifts, akin to the unwanted or burdensome gift idea of the phrase.

  • Can "a white elephant" be something small?

Yes, it's not about size but about something being more trouble than it's worth or burdensome.

  • Is the idiom used worldwide?

While it has roots in Asian culture, the phrase is understood in many English-speaking countries today.

  • Are there songs titled "White Elephant"?

Yes, several artists have released songs with that title, drawing on various interpretations of the idiom.

  • How can I use the idiom in a compliment?

It's tricky since the idiom has a negative connotation. However, in a playful context, like admiring someone's large jewelry, you could say, "That ring is quite the white elephant!"

  • Is "a white elephant" the same as "the elephant in the room"?

No, "the elephant in the room" refers to an obvious problem or issue that people avoid discussing.

  • Can businesses be "a white elephant"?

Yes, if a business is costly to run and doesn't provide the expected return, it can be referred to as "a white elephant."

Final Thoughts About "A White Elephant"

"A white elephant" is a phrase signaling something burdensome or of misleading value. Whether referring to an impractical gift, an overly expensive possession, or a project causing more trouble than it's worth, the idiom perfectly encapsulates the idea of deceptive value. The phrase is also a reminder that not all that glitters is gold. Understanding its meaning can help us recognize the true value of things and differentiate between what's truly beneficial and what might be an attractive burden.

Here's a quick wrap-up:

  • The phrase emphasizes the difference between perceived and actual value.
  • It encourages us to be wary of seemingly valuable things with hidden costs.
  • Being familiar with "a white elephant" enriches our language and allows us to convey complex ideas succinctly.

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