Friday, January 2, 2009

For The Love of White Elephants

In my Christmas-Eve post, I wondered "aloud" where the term "white elephant" had come from, and vowed to do a little research to find out. Well, this is what I discovered.

Based on an exhaustive search of all available sources on the subject (i.e. a few websites websites found from a search on Google and Yahoo!), it appears that the term "white elephant" originated somewhere in Asia. Apparently, white (i.e. albino, or otherwise pale-skinned) elephants actually exist, but are rare and were considered sacred in certain Asian cultures in the past. Depending on which source you read, such countries might have included Burma, China, India and Thailand (formerly called Siam). The "sacred" part may have come from a legend that Buddha's mother, when she was still pregnant with Buddha, either saw a vision of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower, or of a white elephant entering her womb. In either event, white elephants were thereafter closely associated with Buddha, and according to one source (, even considered to be descendants of Buddha.

With white elephants being so rare and sacred, it made sense that the only people to own them were typically monarchs. The possession of white elephants represented royal and heavenly power, and was a sign that a monarch ruled with justice and equity. However, because white elephants were so sacred, they were not used in battle or to perform labor as other elephants might have been. Rather, they were kept and protected and fed, at great expense, basically only for show.

Somewhere along the line, a monarch (the King of Siam according to one legend) realized that owning and maintaining a white elephant would be a huge, and perhaps crippling financial burden to anyone other than the king. So the king began making gifts of white elephants to people he did not particularly like, such as perhaps a rival within his court. At first, such a gift might have been considered an immense honor. But as the months passed and the impending financial ruin took shape, it became clear that this "gift" was anything but. In reality, the expense and burden of the "gift" far outweighed any value. The gift of a white elephant became a way to wreak financial havoc on a rival or enemy.

None of the sources I researched were very clear how the term "white elephant" made its way from these origins into its "modern" usage, although one source notes (without backup) that the phrase first appeared in English sometime around 1851 (see In any event, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to see how a "white elephant" gift would come to be associated with something that has diminished value or appeal to the giver, and could be considered useless by the receiver. A few years ago, our family did a "white elephant" gift exchange on Christmas Eve as has been our tradition for some time. On this particular evening, I was seduced by the relatively large size and weight of a particular package (I know, I know -- big mistake ...), and decided to take it as my "gift". Upon opening it, I found a complete paperback copy (multiple volumes) of the California Civil Code. And -- it was out of date! As I look back on that moment now, I clearly see that the giver of that gift had obviously already done their research, and truly and fully understood the origins and deepest meaning of "white elephant" -- big, useless, and (potentially, at least) very expensive. Thanks, Carol!

(By the way, if you don't trust me -- and why shouldn't you?? -- and feel that you have to verify my research, search "where did the term 'white elephant' come from" in both the Google and Yahoo! search engines)


  1. I think a change in careers is in order--how about research librarian or history professor?

  2. I don't think so, Allyson. Not in this economy. Just keep wowing your many followers with your search skills!

  3. I loved the information and called Troy to share it with him. But... we both think you aren't busy enough!
    Jema & Troy