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The meaning and origin of the expression: A white elephant

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A white elephant

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Meaning

A burdensome possession; creating more trouble than it is worth.

Origin

white elephantWhite (albino) elephants were regarded as holy in ancient times in Thailand and other Asian countries. Keeping a white elephant was a very expensive undertaking, since the owner had to provide the elephant with special food and provide access for people who wanted to worship it. If a Thai King became dissatisfied with a subordinate, he would give him a white elephant. The gift would, in most cases, ruin the recipient.

References to Indian and Thai veneration of white elephants dates back to at least the early 17th century. The first reference in English to the idiomatic meaning of the term 'white elephant' comes in 1851 G. E. Jewbury's Letters, 1892:

"His services are like so many white elephants, of which nobody can make use, and yet that drain one's gratitude, if indeed one does not feel bankrupt."