What is a White Elephant?

If you read the political or business pages of English language newspapers, you may come across the idiomatic phrase white elephant. This term is often used as an insult aimed at expensive government projects that are rarely used such as football stadiums or airports. If you learn the story of its etymology, you’ll never forget this noun phrase.

The tale goes back to 19th century Thailand, or Siam as it was called then.


When the King of Siam decided he didn’t like one of his courtiers, he would give her or him a gift. Instead of giving something useful like food or clothing, the king would give his servant a white elephant. This may seem like an elaborate present for someone you don’t like, but this is where the plan gets clever. Because the royal family in Thailand was (and still is) so revered, the courtier had no choice but to accept the gift and pay for its upkeep. Unsurprisingly, the cost of maintaining an elephant was high, thus such a gift would financially ruin most courtiers.


These days, white elephants are expensive objects that are rarely used. After the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, many of the stadiums lie unused, causing critics to label them white elephants. This same label has been used insultingly to describe the Korean government’s new KF-X fighter jet project. It doesn’t always end up badly for white elephants, though. When the Millenium Dome was built in London, many people feared it would become a white elephant, but it is now a successful sports and music venue called the O2 Arena.


Can any of you make sentences using the phrase white elephants? If so, comment below!

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