What does “white elephant” mean?

Discover the meaning of white elephant, its origin in Siam, and how this idiom refers to burdensome objects or ideas. Explore synonyms and examples!

Definition and Origin

White elephant is an idiom used to describe something that is expensive to maintain, difficult to get rid of, and burdensome to keep.

The phrase can refer to both physical objects and abstract concepts, such as a business venture, project, or idea.

Meaning of White Elephant

The phrase “white elephant” is believed to have originated in Siam, now known as Thailand.

According to legend, the kings of Siam would give rare, sacred albino elephants as gifts to those who displeased them.

While the recipient was honored to receive such a magnificent creature, they soon realized that the cost of feeding, housing, and caring for the elephant far outweighed its value.

The elephant became a burden, and the recipient would go bankrupt trying to maintain it.

In modern times, the phrase “white elephant” is used to describe anything that is expensive, useless, and difficult to dispose of.

For example, a person might say, “That old car I bought turned out to be a real white elephant.

It’s always breaking down, and I can’t seem to sell it.”

Historical Background

The term “white elephant” was first used in English in the mid-1800s to describe something that was burdensome or useless.

The phrase gained popularity in the United States during the Great Depression, when many people found themselves with possessions they could no longer afford to keep.

The white elephant is considered a sacred animal in many parts of Asia, including India, where it is often associated with the Hindu god Ganesha.

In Thailand, the white elephant is a symbol of royalty and power, and is often depicted in art and literature.


Here are three examples of how the phrase “white elephant” can be used in a sentence:

  • “I thought buying that antique vase would be a good investment, but it turned out to be a real white elephant.”
  • “The new swimming pool was supposed to be a great addition to the house, but it’s been nothing but a white elephant since we moved in.”
  • “The company’s new software program was supposed to revolutionize the industry, but it turned out to be a white elephant that nobody wanted to use.”

Are “White Elephant” and “White Lie” Related in Meaning?

Are “White Elephant” and “White Lie” related in meaning? Many people often wonder what does white lie mean, but it is important to note that “white elephant” and “white lie” have different meanings. “White elephant” refers to a possession or project that is burdensome to maintain, while “white lie” denotes a harmless or trivial lie told to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.


Here are three synonyms for the phrase “white elephant”:

  • Boondoggle
  • Albatross
  • White elephant gift (a gift that is useless or unwanted)