Why do we say ‘white elephant’?
Although a white elephant used to be considered a sacred and tremendously valuable animal in Siam, being given one as a present by the King could be the worst thing to happen to you
Today, the term ‘white elephant’ denotes any burdensome, expensive and useless possession that is much more trouble than it is worth. The origins of the phrase come from Siam (modern-day Thailand).
White or very pale elephants were so highly prized that when one was discovered, it immediately became the possession of the King. Such was the reverence held for the animal in Siam that it appeared on the nation’s flag until 1917.
White Elephant – a useless gift
White elephants, however, were practically useless. As they were deemed to be sacred, they weren’t allowed to be worked and required special, expensive food and housing – making them particularly pricey pachyderms.
So the cunning kings of Siam, as the story goes, used to give white elephants away to anyone who displeased them or had fallen out of favour so that they would be forced to spend a fortune keeping the precious animals. The unfortunate recipient of a white elephant would be unable to get rid of it so the upkeep could ruin them financially.
This content first appeared in the September 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed
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