white elephant


Definition of white elephant

1 : an Asian elephant of a pale color that is sometimes venerated in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar
2a : a property requiring much care and expense and yielding little profit
b : an object no longer of value to its owner but of value to others
c : something of little or no value

Did you know?

The real white elephant (the kind with a trunk) is a pale pachyderm that has long been an object of veneration in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar. Too revered to be a beast of burden, the white elephant earned a reputation as a burdensome beast—one that required constant care and feeding but never brought a single cent (or paisa or satang or pya) to its owner. One story has it that the kings of Siam (the old name for Thailand) gave white elephants as gifts to those they wished to ruin, hoping that the cost of maintaining the voracious but sacred mammal would drive its new owner to the poorhouse.

Examples of white elephant in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, housed in an enormous glass pyramid that resembles a Las Vegas casino more than the basements, dives, and high school gymnasiums where the music was born, is a temple of white elephant art. Samuel Goldman, The Week, 4 May 2022 Perennials for sun and shade, bulbs, herbs, and unusual plants from members’ own gardens will be available, along with a gardener’s white elephant table. Hartford Courant, 29 Apr. 2022 There’s always a feast, including fish caught by my father and his friends, white elephant-style gift exchanges, and arguments over domino matches. Sunset Magazine, 1 Apr. 2022 What started as a visionary or vanity project, or both, has stalled out, leaving behind a white elephant in the Central African forest. Michael M. Phillips, WSJ, 2 Jan. 2022 The Matrix, on the other hand, has always been white elephant art. Samuel Goldman, The Week, 16 Sep. 2021 Enjoy a free cup of coffee while shopping for baked goods, books, children’s clothes, and white elephant treasures. courant.com, 8 Oct. 2021 Such projects attract their fair share of criticism for being white elephant projects, economically unsustainable, poorly planned, overambitious, and sometimes doomed to fail. Seth Onyango, Quartz, 23 Sep. 2021 The refinery in Tabasco is a white elephant that will give priority to hydrocarbons rather than to clean and renewable energies. Enrique Krauze, The New York Review of Books, 2 July 2020 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'white elephant.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

First Known Use of white elephant

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Learn More About white elephant

Time Traveler for white elephant

Time Traveler

The first known use of white elephant was in the 15th century

See more words from the same century

Listen to Our Podcast About white elephant

Dictionary Entries Near white elephant

white earth

white elephant

white elm

See More Nearby Entries 

Statistics for white elephant

Last Updated

15 May 2022

Cite this Entry

“White elephant.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/white%20elephant. Accessed 22 May. 2022.

Style: MLA
MLACheck Mark Icon ChicagoCheck Mark Icon APACheck Mark Icon Merriam-WebsterCheck Mark Icon

More from Merriam-Webster on white elephant

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for white elephant


Test Your Vocabulary

Eponyms: Words Named After People

How Strong Is Your Vocabulary?

Test your vocabulary with our 10-question quiz!

Universal Daily Crossword

A daily challenge for crossword fanatics.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!