From the A.Word.A.Day mailing list:
  1. A possession unwanted by the owner but difficult to dispose of.
  2. A possession entailing great expense out of proportion to its usefulness or value to the owner.
  3. An abnormally whitish or pale elephant, usually found in Thailand; an albino elephant.
{From the perhaps apocryphal tale that the King of Siam would award a disagreeable courtier with a white elephant, the upkeep of which would ruin the courtier.}

"Now an orchestra opening a new hall has reason to pray, solemnly and at length, that it will not be saddled with a white elephant with mediocre acoustics." Allan Kozinn, "A Venerable Concert Hall That's the Belle of the Ball," The New York Times, Sep 30, 2000.

According to legend:

In india elephants are revered; white elephants, amazingly rare, were considered sacred.

The monarch of india was one time given a white elephant as a gift by another monarch. He was thrilled and felt honored to have such a rare and blessed creature. He assigned twenty men specially to care for his prize.

Time went by, and the elephant was fine, but did not look quite as majestic as it had, somehow. The king asked his advisor what should be done. The man said the king was not honoring the godly beast enough, nor was it properly cared for; the king should request the elephant be given ten bowls of fresh, exotic fruit every day for its health. But since it was a holy animal, it cold have only the best. It must be fed from bowls of solid gold. So the king commissioned these bowls and executed the order that the beast feast on mango and papaya and banana and pineapple each day. And five more men were required for this task.

More time passed, and for a time the animal looked better. But as months went by, the elephant began to look droopy once again. The wise man this time recommended twenty bowls of the finest grain be fed to the white animal each day. And again, the bowls must be gold, to reverence the creature properly. And the king gave these orders too.

This continued throughout the years. Bowls of fresh berries, corn, a new thing each time, in golden containers again. The king could no longer truly afford the upkeep of this animal. But it was such an honor to posess a white elephant he could not just let it go. To do so would displease the gods whose creature this was, and dishonour his kingdom.

hence comes the term 'white elephant'--unwanted gift that often brings inconvenince or trouble upon the reciever, far beyond the worth of the gift initially.

Unlike the traditional and benign Secret Santa concept practiced in groups of friends, at office parties and so forth, White Elephant brings excitement and the spirit of competition to the Christmas experience. It is a fun alternative to Secret Santa or a grab-bag. It’s played as follows:

It begins with each participant bringing a gift wrapped in white paper (preferably disguised in size and weight). There needn’t be any thought to who might receive the gift, it’s general and the stranger the gift, the better the response (typically). The gifts are piled on a table, and numbers are drawn to determine who goes when. Number one goes first, choosing a gift and unwrapping it for all to see. Then number two goes and things start to get interesting.

Number two can steal number one’s gift if they desire it. If this happens, then number one chooses another wrapped gift, and opens it. If number two does not covet number one’s gift, they choose their own gift from the table of presents. This continues with each person having the option of choosing a wrapped gift and opening that, or stealing a previous participant’s gift. If a gift is stolen, the person stolen from chooses a new gift. It continues until each person has received a gift, or until the fighting is too much for everyone, and it’s time to break for cocktails.

The benefits of White Elephant are that you needn’t gear your gift toward any one person. You can even get yourself something you like, in hopes no one else will choose it. You don’t have to worry about ending up stuck buying a gift for someone you don’t know or like. Plus, there is that excitement of the hunt, the strategy and the fight to keep everyone amused at holiday gatherings.

In Siam of the past and Thailand of today, the discovery of a white elephant is considered a very auspicious sign for the ruling king, and ownership of such beasts is his prerogative. Anyone who thinks they have seen a white elephant must notify an official - today someone at the Ministry of Interior - who in turn informs the Bureau of the Royal Household. Representatives from that august body conduct an examination to decide if the animal bears the characteristics of this special and most noble creature.

There are four classes of white elephant; whether, and where, a particular animal belongs is decided upon based on an arcane set of standards that includes, but is not restricted to, colour. (In fact in Thai the animals are called chang pheuk, albino elephants.) The colour of the elephant is assessed; it's not actually white, but generally pale and mottled in white, yellow, black, red, and grey tones; the highest class of white elephant is lotus bud pink.

The eyes should have white or pink rims, the irises a blue or pink tinge, though jet black is best of all. Asian elephants have two bumps on their foreheads (African elephants have only one); these bumps should be so pronounced that a man can lay his neck down between them. The beast's tail should hang straight, and it's best if the hairs on its tip touch the ground. The ears should touch when pulled together across the eyes, and the toenails should be light-coloured, either red, white or pink; it's most auspicious if the pachyderm has 20 toes. The trunk should be long and strong, and the patterns of hair along the back and head are examined minutely; three hairs emerging from a single pore is particularly fine.

Also important is the creature's personality. Does it betray its intelligence by running ahead of the herd to bathe first, before the waters are muddied by its companions? Does it choose grass tufts carefully, swishing them to either side before consuming them, thus discarding insects? Through such complicated judgements is the class of the white elephant decided.

In past times these lucky leviathans seem to have lived a life of consummate luxury, if the writings of the Portuguese Jesuit Fernao Mendez Pinto are any indication. His 1554 account of his visit to Siam some years earlier relates that he had been privileged to witness the procession of a white elephant through the city of Ayuthaya; it was adorned with a gold and silver saddle cloth and accompanied by 160 horses and over 100 elephants, many ridden by Siamese nobles. The entire procession froze when the white elephant paused, and its urine was collected in a golden vessel. The occasion was a visit to the river, where the royal pachyderm partook of the waters behind a screened bathing pavilion.

It is not surprising, then, that the first flag of Siam - in use from 1816 to 1917 - featured a white elephant on a red background; it was adopted during the reign of Rama II after he came into possession of a third white elephant, which joined the two he already had. The current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), a worldly man, has six stables in his palace grounds in Bangkok where 111 elephants are housed, six of which have been through the Buddhist and Brahminic ceremonies conferring on them official white elephant status. The grand poobah of these is Phra Savet Adulyadej Pahon, a huge bull who is considered one of the finest white elephants of the Chakri dynasty; he is known for his proud and independent spirit. His most illustrious predecessor was Phra Savet Worawan, the pride of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V); it is fitting that these two most beloved and popular kings of the dynasty are associated with two most impressive and magnificent white elephants.

Modern royal elephants are not as coddled as they were in days of yore; they are under the care of a royal veterinary surgeon, who, with the king's permission (which must be granted in all matters relating to these venerable animals) has reformed their care. They have more exercise than was true of their predecessors of days gone by, being ridden by their mahouts (except for Phra Savet Adulyadej Pahon, who is too exalted to be mounted), and are given the choicest grasses and fruits. The royal vet has also apparently tried to doctor bananas with vitamin and iron pills to boost their health, for a spoiled elephant is a delicate one; this ruse was successful only once, and thereafter the intelligent creatures refused all adulterated fruits. This means they have an annual injection, a black day for the royal vet as the elephants trumpet their outrage at his ministrations.

In a perfect blending of tradition and modernity, Thai scientists are engaged in an ambitious ten-year project to clone a white elephant that was revered over 150 years ago, during the reign of Rama III.

White elephant.

Something requiring much care and expense and yielding little profit; any burdensome possession.



© Webster 1913.

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