Friday, 19 September 2008

What is a White Elephant? Origin and Meaning

I was under the impression that a White Elephant is an item that one possesses, but has no practical value, in that it makes no difference whether you have it or not. Just a useless object that is forever in your way. This is only partially true.
The expression in original context was "to have a white elephant to keep".
In Southeastern Asian countries a white,(albino), elephant is associated in the scriptures with the birth of Budda and is considered sacred. They are protected and are not utilised as working animals as is the case with other elephants. To own a white elephant was a privilege, as this was a gift from the Monarch, signifying that the country was prosperous and well managed.
So, now you have a gift that you are morally obliged to keep and maintain. The gift is of no practical value, cannot generate an income, and is expensive to maintain. To dispose of the animal would be an insult to the Monarch.

The way I see it is that in today's terminology the expression is a negative one. In the original context it is positive. If I had been given a gift by a Monarch I would see it as a privilege, which gives rise to the question as to whether Eastern countries have the same negative connotation to the expression.
So, the expression was morphed to "white elephant", and the "to keep" has disappeared. While looking for practical examples of modern white elephants, most references were to government expenditure. Lots of money spent on infrastructure, oftentimes for political reasons. These expenditures resulted in capital projects with no significant practical value and costing a fortune to maintain. Dams, airports and sport stadia are often cited.
This is not limited to Governments, I have a bunch of white elephants at home. Now that I think about it, is the bride in an arranged marriage a white elephant?
Another thing that pops into mind is that I cannot recall of ever hearing of a white African elephant. Is this phenomenon related to Asian elephants only?, I don't know.
Read about the difference between African and Asian elephants here
What is a Pink Elephant? Origin and meaning
Edit : 21 July 2009
See comment below:
From what I can find out, pink elephants are seen by peole who have had more than a plentifull sufficiency to drink, as in alcohol. " It is a euphemism for drunken hallucination, caused by alcoholic hallucinosis or delirium tremors" as defined by Wikipedia.
By all accounts this saying has been around in some form or another since the late 1800's.References have also been made to blue mice and pink giraffes. The Elephant formally originated 1n 1913, Jack London.
I can recall a cocktail called a pink Elephant, whic was a good enough clue to avoid it.
Anyhow, not much i could find on the topic, but Wikipedia has a tad more detail if you want to scratch further.


WEOUT said...

Love your explanation...

What do you know about Pink Elephants? Not asking for your personal experience, LOL, but do you have any idea where this particular euphemism for alcoholic halluciations originated? I can find nothing, short of Dumbo's Pink Elephants on Parade, and I have to believe it started long before that.


Anonymous said...

I've head that the value of the white elephant is huge something like taking generic viagra, at least that's what say some experts in this theory.