Why Do We Say “White Elephant” Gift?

Tuesday Feb 23rd, 2021


A "white elephant" is a possession that you want to get rid of but can't, usually in the context of Christmas and a sweater from your aunt. But why do we call that an elephant?

It's one of those terms that makes so little sense that you'd have to assume it comes from a story or a fable, like maybe somebody got a huge white porcelain elephant as a gift that was useless but impossible to give away, and maybe it turned out it granted wishes or something. The point is, when used to refer to a gift item, a white elephant clearly refers to an item that is somewhat useless, though possibly cute or charming.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, the term comes from actual white elephants that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) would gift to annoying people in order to make life difficult for them. Since white elephants were sacred in Siam, they couldn't be regifted or put to work. But, they were still expensive to maintain, meaning that the owners usually ended up being “elephanted” to ruin.


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