white elephant

noun

1
: an Asian elephant of a pale color that is sometimes venerated in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar
2
a
: 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 Keep scrolling to shop more white elephant gift exchange ideas under $50 now. Alyssa Grabinski, Peoplemag, 5 Dec. 2023 This also makes a great white elephant gift, because anyone could benefit from less melty ice cream. Moriah Mason, Southern Living, 14 Nov. 2023 More great reads Queen Mary, once a sinking white elephant, shows signs of remarkable revival. Kevinisha Walker, Los Angeles Times, 6 Jan. 2024 So far the project has managed only to plunk a seeming white elephant on the region’s premier industrial plot. Laura Vozzella, Washington Post, 28 Dec. 2023 Stocking stuffers and white elephant gifts are arguably the best holiday presents to receive — aka small, affordable finds that are crowd-pleasers. Bridget Degnan, Travel + Leisure, 12 Dec. 2023 Their offensive line opted for a white elephant gift exchange, in which the most coveted item was a flamethrower. Tori Latham, Robb Report, 28 Dec. 2023 North Hollywood, - December 24: T.J. Morales unveils his white elephant gift during a Nochebuena celebration at he and his husband’s home. Jeong Park, Los Angeles Times, 28 Dec. 2023 The best white elephant gifts are things that are, frankly, a little bit cursed. Wilder Davies, Bon Appétit, 15 Dec. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'white elephant.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

First Known Use

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

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

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Cite this Entry

“White elephant.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/white%20elephant. Accessed 29 Feb. 2024.

Kids Definition

white elephant

noun
: something requiring much care and expense and giving little profit or enjoyment
Etymology

so called from the fact that in India and neighboring countries, light-colored elephants are treated as sacred and kept without being put to work

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