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white elephant

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noun
  1. a possession unwanted by the owner but difficult to dispose of: Our Victorian bric-a-brac and furniture were white elephants.
  2. a possession entailing great expense out of proportion to its usefulness or value to the owner: When he bought the mansion he didn't know it was going to be such a white elephant.
  3. an abnormally whitish or pale elephant, usually found in Thailand; an albino elephant.
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Origin of white elephant

First recorded in 1850–55; from the perhaps apocryphal tale that the King of Siam would award a disagreeable courtier a white elephant, the upkeep of which would ruin the courtier
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

Examples from the Web for white elephant

Historical Examples

  • Since you are probably not in the white-elephant line of business, I won't tell you which of my novels I was at work on.

    A Case in Camera

    Oliver Onions


British Dictionary definitions for white elephant

white elephant

noun
  1. a rare albino or pale grey variety of the Indian elephant, regarded as sacred in parts of S Asia
  2. a possession that is unwanted by its owner
  3. an elaborate venture, construction, etc, that proves useless
  4. a rare or valuable possession the upkeep of which is very expensive
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Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for white elephant

n.

1851, "inconvenient thing that can't be got rid of," supposedly from the practice of the King of Siam of presenting one of the sacred albino elephants to a courtier who had fallen from favor; the gift was a great honor, but the cost of proper upkeep of one was ruinously expensive.

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Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

white elephant in Culture

white elephant

An unwanted or financially burdensome possession, or a project that turns out to be of limited value: “The new office building turned out to be a white elephant once the company decided to move its headquarters.”

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The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Idioms and Phrases with white elephant

white elephant

An unwanted or useless item, as in The cottage at the lake had become a real white elephant—too run down to sell, yet costly to keep up, or Grandma's ornate silver is a white elephant; no one wants it but it's too valuable to discard. This expression comes from a legendary former Siamese custom whereby an albino elephant, considered sacred, could only be owned by the king. The king would bestow such an animal on a subject with whom he was displeased and wait until the high cost of feeding the animal, which could not be slaughtered, ruined the owner. The story was told in England in the 1600s, and in the 1800s the term began to be used figuratively.

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The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.