The White Elephant

The English language regularly makes use of the “white elephant" to describe something that, although perhaps valuable, serves no real purpose. Because of its value (whether financial or sentimental), these objects are difficult to dispose of.

This means that it becomes a financial burden to maintain. The Montréal-Mirabel International Airport is a good example of such an object. It is North America’s largest airport, yet does not act as a passenger port at all, making it an almost redundant resource. So, the term basically means “more trouble than it’s worth".

This saying originates from south-east Asia. A white, sometimes Albino, elephant was very valuable in areas such as Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand (in fact, it remains to be considered as such in Burma and Thailand to this day). The monarch often possessed a white elephant as a sign that they were ruling fairly, ensuring peace and happiness within their kingdom. The monarch would also give a white elephant as a gift to esteemed peers as a sign of love and respect. However, because this animal was so special and rare, sacred laws prohibited that they be used in labour, as regular elephants were beasts of labour in those areas. This meant that the white elephant needed to be housed, fed and cared for, but never created any revenue for the owner to make up for these costs. It was both a great privilege and a curse to possess one of there rare finds.

The tradition of giving a white elephant as a sign of justice, peace and prosperity originates from the birth of Buddha, the revered founder of Buddhism.

It is believed that his mother had dreamt that a white elephant had approached her and given her a lotus flower on the night before she gave birth to Buddha. This particular flower is thought to be a symbol of purity and wisdom.

Not all white elephants were Albino, some were just unusually white. Their skin was not actually white, but a light brown with a red base to it. When wet, these elephants appear to turn a soft pink colour. Their eyelashes are fair, and their toenails light. The lighter the elephant, the better the king was considered to be ruling. The white elephant is said to belong to the god Indra.

While this theory appears to be the most widely accepted one, the Investopedia claims that the white elephant was actually given to enemies of the monarch as a sign of dislike, as it became a financial burden to these people, but they were unable to rid themselves of this obligation.