white elephant

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In Siam elephants were working animals. However, white (albino) elephants were considered sacred and therefore were not to be put to work. The owner was then left to feed the elephant but could get no work from it. It is said that the King of Siam used to make a present of a white elephant to courtiers he wanted to ruin.


A 19th century Thai white elephant.

white elephant (plural white elephants)

  1. An albino elephant.
  2. (idiomatic) A possession that is unwanted or is a financial burden; an unprofitable investment.
    • 2013 June 18, Simon Romero, "Protests Widen as Brazilians Chide Leaders," New York Times (retrieved 21 June 2013):
      Some of the stadiums being built for the World Cup soccer tournament, scheduled for next year, have also been criticized for delays and cost overruns, and have become subjects of derision as protesters question whether they will become white elephants.


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