Where does the term “White Elephant” come from?

White elephant is not just a game played at office parties. There’s an actual story behind the term.

In case you were wondering, the term “white elephant” comes from ancient Siam, today the country known as Thailand. In those days as now, albino or white elephants were extremely rare. Some even considered such animals to be sacred. Unless someone was explicitly given permission by his/her majesty, no one but a royal monarch could own such an auspicious animal.

At the same time, the cost of caring for such a beast was exorbitant. Elephants were in general expensive to feed and take care of. Most however were useful because they could at least be put to work in certain industries such as logging, construction (kind of like a bulldozer) and warfare. However white elephants, due to their rarity and perceived value, almost never were put to work. In fact, there was nothing that it was allowed to do. White elephants essentially became gigantic luxury pets of their owners. Given it’s insatiable appetite for food, such an animal could bankrupt its owner. Often times the Siamese king, whenever he needed to raise cash, would “gift” a white elephant to someone, allowing the expenses for its upkeep to be the responsibility of that person. Sometimes it was even done out of spite with the king gifting the animal to a noble or rival who he knew would be adversely affected by such a sacred honor.

Thus came the term “white elephant” – an expensive but otherwise useless object.

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