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

Keep scrolling for more

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

In our opinion, the ideal white elephant gift is usually one that is funny but useless, useful but bizarre, or a flat out mix of both, which can take a lot of imagination to successfully pull off. SELF, "31 Funny, Totally Office-Appropriate White Elephant Gifts $20 and Under," 8 Nov. 2018 Not to be outdone in its extravagance, Russia — the country that brought us $50 billion worth of white elephants for the 2014 Winter Olympics — spent a reported $10.8 billion on World Cup stadiums. Mark Zeigler, sandiegouniontribune.com, "Your guide to the World Cup you forgot was happening," 13 June 2018 Image Too much overseas activity risks creating wasteful white elephants that can drag down Chinese companies and local partners alike. Keith Bradsher, New York Times, "China Taps the Brakes on Its Global Push for Influence," 29 June 2018 But, in interviews, Mr. Karas and others singled out the stadium for praise amid concerns that other World Cup stadiums in Russia would become white elephants after the monthlong competition. Andrew Keh, New York Times, "If You’re Afraid of Heights but Going to the World Cup, Don’t Sit Here," 13 June 2018 This is an existing white elephant getting a new lease on life, if only briefly as an imposing backdrop. Washington Post, "Unused Soviet-era office block looms over World Cup fans," 28 June 2018 Emanuel joined Musk in the white elephant of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s O’Hare high-speed rail dreams, the Chicago Transit Authority superstation in the Block 37 retail development in the Loop. John Byrne, chicagotribune.com, "Emanuel calls Elon Musk's proposed 12-minute express tunnel to O'Hare 'the fast lane to Chicago's future'," 14 June 2018 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. Courant Community, "Community News For The Vernon Edition," 8 May 2018 The sprawling terminal may have become a bit of a white elephant with the falloff in passenger traffic, but not so the airport as a whole. New York Times, "The Trouble With the Memphis Airport: No Crowds," 23 May 2018

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.

See More

First Known Use of white elephant

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about white elephant

Share white elephant

Listen to Our Podcast about white elephant

Statistics for white elephant

Last Updated

21 Nov 2018

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for white elephant

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

See more words from the same century

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for white elephant

white elephant


English Language Learners Definition of white elephant

: something that requires a lot of care and money and that gives little profit or enjoyment

Comments on white elephant

What made you want to look up white elephant? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


amusing and light sparring with words

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Late Autumn 2018 Words of the Day Quiz

  • frosted-autumn-leaves
  • Which is a synonym of yahoo?
Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?

Word Winder's CrossWinder

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.


Love words? Need even more definitions?

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