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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
1850-1855
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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Examples from the web for white elephant
  • 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.
  • We had a white elephant sale at our school once and it bombed.
British Dictionary definitions for white elephant

white elephant

noun
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 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for white elephant
n.

1851, "inconvenient thing that can't be got rid of," supposedly from the practice of the King of Siam of presenting one of the sacred albino elephants to a courtier who had fallen from favor; the gift was a great honor, but the cost of proper upkeep of one was ruinously expensive.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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white elephant in Culture

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 definitions & phrases for white elephant

white elephant

noun phrase

Something putatively valuable, often a gift, that one does not want; an embarrassing piece of bric-a-brac: a wonderful collection of white elephants, trash, treasures

[1851+; fr the white elephant of Thailand, which, although it is sacred and royal, is also a clumsy sort of possession for one's house]


The Dictionary of American Slang, Fourth Edition by Barbara Ann Kipfer, PhD. and Robert L. Chapman, Ph.D.
Copyright (C) 2007 by HarperCollins Publishers.
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Idioms and Phrases with white elephant

white elephant

An unwanted or useless item, as in The cottage at the lake had become a real white elephant—too 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® Idioms Dictionary
Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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