white elephant

noun
1.
a possession unwanted by the owner but difficult to dispose of: Our Victorian bric-a-brac and furniture were white elephants.
2.
a possession entailing great expense out of proportion to its usefulness or value to the owner: When he bought the mansion he didn't know it was going to be such a white elephant.
3.
an abnormally whitish or pale elephant, usually found in Thailand; an albino elephant.

Origin:
1850–55; from the perhaps apocryphal tale that the King of Siam would award a disagreeable courtier a white elephant, the upkeep of which would ruin the courtier

Dictionary.com Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014.
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Collins
World English Dictionary
white elephant
 
n
1.  a rare albino or pale grey variety of the Indian elephant, regarded as sacred in parts of S Asia
2.  a possession that is unwanted by its owner
3.  an elaborate venture, construction, etc, that proves useless
4.  a rare or valuable possession the upkeep of which is very expensive

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009
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Etymonline
Word Origin & History

white elephant
1851, from supposed custom of the King of Siam in showing his disfavor of a courtier by giving him care of one of the sacred albino elephants, a high honor, but ruinously expensive.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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American Heritage
Cultural Dictionary

white elephant definition


An unwanted or financially burdensome possession, or a project that turns out to be of limited value: “The new office building turned out to be a white elephant once the company decided to move its headquarters.”

The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
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Slang Dictionary

white elephant definition


  1. n.
    a useless or unwanted object. (From the notion that an extremely valuable gift that requires great expense for its care and protection is an unwanted gift.) : Take all those white elephants to the flea market.
Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions by Richard A. Spears.Fourth Edition.
Copyright 2007. Published by McGraw-Hill Education.
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American Heritage
Idioms & Phrases

white elephant

An unwanted or useless item, as in The cottage at the lake had become a real white elephanttoo run down to sell, yet costly to keep up, or Grandma's ornate silver is a white elephant; no one wants it but it's too valuable to discard. This expression comes from a legendary former Siamese custom whereby an albino elephant, considered sacred, could only be owned by the king. The king would bestow such an animal on a subject with whom he was displeased and wait until the high cost of feeding the animal, which could not be slaughtered, ruined the owner. The story was told in England in the 1600s, and in the 1800s the term began to be used figuratively.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer.
Copyright © 1997. Published by Houghton Mifflin.
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Example sentences
Talking about population control is taboo, the proverbial white elephant in the
  room.
Without electricity, it is a white elephant, incapable even of flushing.
It seems to me that no one wishes to address the white elephant that has been
  sitting in the room far too long now.
After dessert the group enjoyed a white elephant gift exchange and the
  presentation of awards.
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