Definition: A possession that is burdensome and costs more in terms of money or effort than it is worth. In British usage, it often specifically refers to a public project that has soaring costs with little perceived benefit.
Example: Rosie’s newly purchased Ferrari was a real white elephant. Sure, it looked great but the insurance was bankrupting her.
Iddy can’t believe it. This is an idiom that has a definitive origin!
In ancient Siam (modern day Thailand), white elephants were not only rare, but considered sacred. The Kings of Siam elevated their status by keeping white elephants. If one of the kings’ acquaintances displeased them, they were gifted one of the rare creatures. It may have seemed to be a great honour, but the cost of keeping the elephant and the duties required would soon bankrupt the individual.
The term came into the English language as early as the 1600’s but didn’t become common for another 200 years. There are claims that it gained popularity after PT Barnum, of Barnum and Bailey circus fame, spent great effort as well as plenty of cash to buy a white elephant from the then King of Siam, to discover that it really wasn’t white at all, just light grey.
The term also became associated with church sales during the 20th century, openly referred to as ‘white elephant sales’, where donors brought in their junk, like tacky ceramic figurines and mismatched plates, to be sold on for church fund-raising.