white elephant


white elephant


  • an expensive item with no use or purpose
  • burdensome possession
  • something that’s not useful anymore and costs a lot to keep
  • anything that has only imaginary or perhaps aesthetic value for the owner, but has no practical or functional value

The term ‘white elephant‘ means any expensive, burdensome and worthless possession that is much more trouble than it is worth.

Example Sentences

  1. Everyone thought the Olympic stadiums would be a white elephant after the closing ceremony.
  2. That new shopping centre has turned into a white elephant now as they can’t rent out any of the shop spaces.
  3. Pat didn’t want his building plans to become a white elephant, so he needed forty of the houses to sell before they started work on site.
  4. He invested his savings in the business and it’s turned into a white elephant.
  5. Soon, I realised that the old car was difficult to maintain and it was like a white elephant.
  6. China’s most powerful supercomputer is simply a white elephant.
  7. Some in the government see the third aircraft carrier as a frightfully expensive white elephant.


The phrase comes from Thailand (or Siam as it was known then). White or nearly white elephants were extremely prized and revered so, became the King’s possession when they were discovered. They even appeared on the national flag until 1917.

Legend tells us that these sacred animals were given as gifts to anyone who fell out of favour with the kings. Subsequently, this animal became an unwanted drain on resources because being sacred they couldn’t work and could ruin the owner with their very expensive accommodation and upkeep. So, the term is now used for any useless item or venture that is a financial loss leader.

Share your opinions3 Opinions

White elephants were not given as gifts in Siam – they were jealously collected and hoarded by the King, and used to attract the donation of religious offerings to the revered animals. The “legend” is actually a misnomer, based on an earlier legend of Indian nabobs giving elephants away, and an earlier idiom, “to be like the man who won an elephant in a raffle.”

‒ Peter Jensen Brown May 4, 2021

The idiom white elephant describes someone or and item that’s costly but with no use.

‒ Obbo Joshua March 31, 2021

What abut the expression “Pink Elephant” Is this the opposite? thank you.

‒ Frances P Mattingly March 16, 2021

What's on your mind?