White elephants and the King of Siam

What springs to mind if you think of the phrase ‘white elephant’? Monuments to a politician’s hubris? The Millennium Dome? Unused and unloved Olympic venues around the world? Few people in England would associate this idiom directly with Elephas maximus, the Asian elephant, or imagine its roots in the royal courts of Burma and Siam.

The Oxford English Dictionary hints at the two meanings for white elephant. The first is its literal meaning – “a rare albino variety of elephant which is highly venerated in some Asian countries”. The second explains the phrase in its figurative sense:

“A burdensome or costly possession (from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance). Also, an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value.”

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