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

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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

After practicing the religion, the mind becomes controlled, strong, and serene—and is then represented by a white elephant. National Geographic, "6 surprisingly lucky animals around the world," 13 Mar. 2019 Some of the German projects have been derided by government officials as white elephants that never stood a chance of making a profit. Bojan Pancevski, WSJ, "In Win for Trump, Merkel Changes Course on U.S. Gas Imports," 22 Oct. 2018 Without enough ships and guns, the Zumwalts were in danger of becoming the white elephants of the fleet. Kyle Mizokami, Popular Mechanics, "After Only 3 Years in Service, the USS Zumwalt’s Mission Is Changing," 17 May 2019 Despite, or perhaps because of, that fact, this property, long a white whale, is at risk of becoming a white elephant. Alex Bhattacharji, Town & Country, "An Empty Lot Above Beverly Hills Is the Most Expensive Real Estate in the World," 17 Jan. 2019 At the time the Titanic went down, William Howard Taft was president—a good and sweet-natured man who weighed more than 300 pounds, enough to sink a ship by himself: a white elephant of the old decencies. Lance Morrow, WSJ, "Did Chivalry Go Down With the Titanic?," 14 Dec. 2018 Stung by criticism of forcing cities to build white elephant venues, the IOC is saying the upcoming Olympics in Paris (2024) and Los Angeles (2028) will rely heavily on existing venues. Stephen Wade, The Seattle Times, "Bach and IOC: No Olympic city ever as ready as Tokyo," 5 Dec. 2018 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

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.

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First Known Use of white elephant

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

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Statistics for white elephant

Last Updated

20 Jun 2019

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Time Traveler for white elephant

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

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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

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