white elephant

A useless or troublesome possession, especially one expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of.

White (albino) elephants were regarded as holy in ancient times in several Asian countries. The tradition derives from tales that associate a white elephant with the birth of the Buddha, as his mother was reputed to have dreamed of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower, a common symbol of wisdom and purity, on the eve of giving birth. 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 favor, and a curse because the recipient now had an expensive-to-maintain animal he could not give away and could not put to much practical use.

The term ‘white elephant’ arose from the story that the kings of Siam would make a present of one of these animals to an obnoxious courtier, in order to ruin him by the cost of its maintenance. 

In modern usage, it is an object, scheme, business venture, facility, etc., considered without use or value. As an example, the British East Africa Company came to regard Uganda as a white elephant when internal conflict broke out in 1892 and rendered the company ineffective in administration of the territory.

In the West, the term was popularized after 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.

The expressions “white elephant” and “gift of a white elephant” came into common use in the middle of the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, the phrase was attached to “white elephant swaps” and “white elephant sales.” Many church bazaars held “white elephant sales” where donors could unload unwanted bric-a-brac, generating profit from the phenomenon that one person’s trash is another persons’s treasure. Many organizational and church fairs still use the term today.

I’ve brought home my share of white elephants from markets or fairs. But I always pass them on to someone else so, while they may be useless, they do provide some amusement.

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