a white elephant

white elephant

1. An expensive item that is troublesome or useless. The term comes from a story about the king of Siam, who was said to have given an albino elephant, considered sacred, to a member of the court whom he disliked, knowing that taking care of the animal would exhaust the person's fortune. At first, Eve was excited to inherit the farm, but it soon proved to be a white elephant she couldn't afford.
2. A fundraiser in which unwanted items have been donated for sale. The church is having a white elephant sale to raise funds for the new vestibule. I'm excited to see what kind of treasures people bring from their garages!
3. A gift exchange in which participants bring unwanted items that can then be chosen and swapped, depending on the particular rules of the gathering. A: "What's with the ugly vase?" B: "We had a white elephant at work, and this is what I ended up with. I'll probably bring it next year."
See also: elephant, white
Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. © 2015 Farlex, Inc, all rights reserved.

a white elephant

COMMON If you describe something such as a new building or project as a white elephant, you mean that it has cost a lot of money but is completely useless. The whole complex was a white elephant, constructed at enormous expense but never used. After 17 years under construction, the factory is still only partly built and is far from being operational. It is in fact, a great white elephant. Note: There is a story that the Kings of Siam used to give white elephants, which are very rare, to courtiers who they did not like. The animals cost so much to keep that their owners spent all their money on them and became very poor.
See also: elephant, white
Collins COBUILD Idioms Dictionary, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2012

a white elephant

a possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of.
In former times, the rare albino elephant was regarded as holy. It was highly prized by the kings of Siam (now Thailand) and its upkeep was extremely expensive. It was apparently the practice for a king of Siam to give one of the elephants to a courtier they disliked: the unfortunate recipient would usually be financially ruined by the attempt to maintain the animal.
See also: elephant, white
Farlex Partner Idioms Dictionary © Farlex 2017

a white ˈelephant

a thing that is useless and no longer needed, although it may have cost a lot of money: That theatre is a real white elephant. It cost millions to build and nobody ever goes there.This comes from the story that in Siam (now Thailand), the king would give a white elephant as a present to somebody that he did not like. That person would have to spend all their money on looking after the rare animal.
See also: elephant, white
Farlex Partner Idioms Dictionary © Farlex 2017

white elephant, a

An unwanted possession that is hard to get rid of but too valuable to throw away. The term comes from a widely told story of an ancient Siamese custom whereby only the king could own an albino elephant, which therefore was considered sacred. When the king was displeased with a courtier, he would give him such a white elephant and wait until the high costs of feeding the beast—being sacred, it could not be killed—caused the man to be ruined. The custom became known in England in the seventeenth century, and by the nineteenth century the term had been transferred to other unwanted items. G. E. Jewsbury wrote, “His services are like so many white elephants of which nobody can make use, and yet that drain one’s gratitude” (letter, 1851).
See also: white
The Dictionary of Clichés by Christine Ammer Copyright © 2013 by Christine Ammer
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References in periodicals archive ?
"Does he mean 'Virasat-e-Khalsa', which salutes Sikh history, is a white elephant?" Badal said.
4, 2012, file photo, a white elephant is fed grass at a zoo in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.
Jig views the hills as white elephants, as entities so large and powerful that they require attention and disallow negotiation, much like the baby within her womb--a connection that Stanley Kozikowski makes: "Hills are like white elephants for Jig because they carry ambivalent evocations of the child within her like a white elephant, an unwanted gift, a seemingly remote but immense problem" (107).
(3) By exhibiting the elephant, Barnum staged a trick enacting the English definition of a white elephant, playing on British perceptions of 'eastern' decadence and Burmese corruption.
As Rita Ringis explains, in the "Thai language, the term 'white elephant' is chang pheuak, which literally means 'albino (or strange-coloured) elephant', the usual word for the colour 'white' being different entirely." A ruler possessing a white elephant would be recognized as an exalted and righteous monarch and 'Lord of the White Elephant.' Regarded as a celestial creature, the elephant was considered a symbol of legitimacy that could be 'spontaneously' accrued in each reign.
JOHN Avison described West Yorkshire County Council as "something of a white elephant" (Examiner, April 1).
Paul said he thought that most local people were not interested in skiing and, if the centre fails, it will become a white elephant and an eyesore.
BET DAVIES (Viewpoints, November 6) berated JC Bird for calling the Millennium Centre a white elephant and suggesting the Assembly is the same.
When a white elephant calf was born in Burma during the 1950s (the nation's last such blessing--all subsequent white elephants have been wild caught), a chronicler noted: "People of all races ...
Disappointingly, when she at last finds what she thinks is one of these elephants, we don't even know for sure if it is one because only a representative of the King of Thailand can declare the authenticity of a white elephant.
A white elephant captured in October in a jungle area of Myanmar was welcomed in Yangon on Thursday with pomp and festivities, according to state-run newspapers published Friday.
Construction began in 1982, and with a price tag so far of $2 billion, it is considered a white elephant. About 80% of the work has been done, and completion is expected to take another six years.
Campaigners against an elected regional assembly unveiled their representation of what it would be - a white elephant.
''In Myanmar history, only during the reign of just and virtuous kings, was such a white elephant usually discovered, and the country prospered in peace and tranquillity as a result.
The rare so-called `white' elephants have actually lent the authority of kingship to its rulers and until the 1920s the national flag was a white elephant on a red background.