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The meaning and origin of the expression: A white elephant

A white elephant

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'A white elephant'?

Originally 'white elephants' were simply that - elephants that were white. Later, the expression came to mean 'a burdensome possession - one that is more trouble than it is worth'. More recently, the term has also been used to describe any doomed enterprise, on which large sums of money are spent and which is then abandoned.

What's the origin of the phrase 'A white elephant'?

White (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.

The meaning of the phrase 'A white elephant'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."

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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