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A white elephant is a valuable possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness.



The term derives from the sacred white elephants kept by Southeast Asian monarchs in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. To possess a white elephant was regarded (and is still regarded in Thailand and Burma) as a sign that the monarch was ruling with justice and power, and that the kingdom was blessed with peace and prosperity.[1] The tradition derives from tales in the scriptures which associate a white elephant with the birth of Buddha, as his mother was reputed to have dreamed of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower, a symbol of wisdom and purity, on the eve of giving birth.[2] Because the animals were considered sacred and laws protected them from labor, receiving a gift of a white elephant from a monarch was both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch's favour, and a curse because the animal had to be kept and could not be put to practical use to offset the cost of maintaining it.

The Order of the White Elephant consists of eight grades of medals issued by the government of Thailand. A humorous story concerns a servant at Buckingham Palace on whom a Thai king once announced he was bestowing a "white elephant". The man checked with the London Zoo to see whether they would take it, and was relieved to discover that it was only a decoration.[citation needed]

Examples of notable alleged white elephants

  • The U.S. Navy's Alaska-class cruisers were described as "white elephants" because the "tactical and strategic concepts that inspired them were completely outmoded" by the time they were commissioned – the Japanese heavy cruisers that they were designed to hunt down had already been destroyed.[3]
  • Concorde, a supersonic transport built by Aérospatiale and British Aircraft Corporation, intended for high-speed intercontinental passenger travel. Only fourteen production aircraft were built, though it was planned that development costs were to be amortized over hundreds of units: [5] the British and French governments incurred large losses as no aircraft could be sold on commercial terms.[6] Concorde flew the transatlantic route for over two decades, and it did at least make a big operating profit for British Airways.[7]
  • SS Great Eastern, a ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. She was the largest ship ever built at the time of her launch in 1858, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers around the world without refuelling, but was not a commercial success. Her hold was later gutted and converted to lay the successful 1865 transatlantic telegraph cable, an impossible task for a smaller vessel.[8]
  • HTMS Chakri Naruebet, a Thai aircraft carrier that has been criticized as having been built for nationalist reasons rather than applicable military uses.
  • Lambert-St. Louis International Airport runway 11/29 was conceived on the basis of traffic projections made in the 1980s and 1990s that warned of impending strains on the airport and the national air traffic system as a result of predicted growth in traffic at the airport.[10] The $1 billion runway expansion was designed in part to allow for simultaneous operations on parallel runways in bad weather. Construction began in 1998, and continued even after traffic at the airport declined following the 9/11 attacks, the purchase of Trans World Airlines by American Airlines in April 2001, and subsequent cuts in flights to the airport by American Airlines in 2003.[11][12] The project required the relocation of seven major roads and the destruction of approximately 2,000 homes in Bridgeton, Missouri.[13][14] In addition to providing superfluous extra capacity for flight operations at the airport, use of the runway is shunned by fuel-conscious pilots and airlines due to its distance from the terminals.[15] Even one of the airport commissioners, John Krekeler, deemed the project a "white elephant".[16]
  • The Millennium Dome in London, built at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds in Greenwich in London to celebrate the millennium, was commonly termed a white elephant.[17][18] The exhibition it initially housed was less successful than hoped and the widely criticised building struggled to find a role after the event. It is now The O2, an arena and entertainment centre.
  • Montréal-Mirabel International Airport is North America's largest airport, but has been abandoned as a passenger airport.[19]
  • Olympic Stadium in Montreal cost about C$1.61 billion. Since the departure of the Montreal Expos baseball team in 2004, it has had no main tenant. The debt from the stadium wasn't paid in full until December 2006.[20] Because of the financial disaster in which it left Montreal, it was nicknamed "The Big Owe", "Uh-O", and "The Big Mistake".[citation needed]
  • Osborne House, East Cowes, Isle of Wight, England, was one of Queen Victoria's favourite royal residences. She died there on January 22, 1901. In her will, she asked that it be kept in the Royal Family, but none of her family wanted it, so Edward VII gave Osborne to the nation. With the exception of Princess Louise and Princess Beatrice, who each retained houses on the estate, the rest of the royal family saw Osborne as something of an inaccessible white elephant.
  • The Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, designed as the world's tallest hotel, began construction in 1987. Due to financial difficulties, construction ceased prematurely in 1992. Since then, the structure has remained as a massive concrete hulk, unfit for habitation.[21] Construction resumed in April 2008.
  • Ada programming language, commissioned by the United States Department of Defense (DoD). It was designed to be a single, standard language, particularly suitable for embedded and real-time systems. The DoD mandated the use of Ada for many software projects in 1987, but removed the requirement in 1997. It is still used in many countries, especially for safety-critical systems such as air traffic control and subways. It came to be known as the "Green Elephant" for the color code used to keep contract selection unbiased. It became irrelevant for commercial applications, barely surviving the wave of new free and successful tools such as C++ and Java.[22]
  • Several incomplete or badly functioning dams, such as the Bujagali dam (Uganda)[23] and Epupa dam (Angola).[24] Most were constructed by foreign companies in the interest of foreign aid.[25] Although the buildings do not meet expectations, if construction is completed or restarted, they could still provide a contribution to the local population.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Elephants in Thailand: Elephant-National Symbol of Thailand
  2. ^ The Birth of Buddha | The New Kadampa Tradition (NKT)
  3. ^ *Morison, Samuel Loring; Morison, Samuel Eliot; Polmar, Norman (2005). Illustrated Directory of Warships of the World: From 1860 to the Present. ABC-CLIO. pp. 85. ISBN 1851-0-9857-7. 
  4. ^ An Aviation Heritage story
  5. ^
  6. ^ - The rise and fall of Concorde - Apr. 10, 2003
  7. ^ BBC NEWS | Business | Why economists don't fly Concorde
  8. ^ Victorian Technology, BBC
  9. ^ Howard Hughes: Hell's Angel By Darwin Porter. Blood Moon Productions, Ltd., 2005 ISBN0974811815 p. 715
  10. ^ "The Expansion Story". Retrieved on 2007-07-25. 
  11. ^ "Historical Operation Statistics by Class for the Years: 1985-2006". Retrieved on 2007-07-25. 
  12. ^ "New $1 billion runway opens this week, but it's not needed anymore". 2006-04-11. Retrieved on 2007-07-25. 
  13. ^ "Airport/Mass Transit November 2005 - Feature Story". Retrieved on 2007-07-25. 
  14. ^ "Airports and cities: Can they coexist?". Retrieved on 2007-07-25. 
  15. ^ "St. Louis' airports aren't too loud: They're too quiet". 2007-01-09. Retrieved on 2007-07-25. 
  16. ^ St. Louis' airports aren't too loud: They're too quiet -
  17. ^ When is a white elephant not a white elephant? from Guardian Unlimited: News blog
  18. ^ From Crystal Palace to White Elephant in 150 ... [Mackinac Center for Public Policy]
  19. ^ The New York Times > International > Americas > End of Era Near in Montreal for White-Elephant Airport
  20. ^ CBC News (2006-12-19). "Quebec's Big Owe stadium debt is over" (HTML). Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved on 2008-06-25. 
  21. ^ "First Signs of Change in Dour Capital"; Christian Science Monitor, Boston, Mass.: Aug 26, 1992
  22. ^ HLA and the MDA
  23. ^ Bujagali dam as white elephant
  24. ^ Dams as white elephants
  25. ^ Dams as white elephants 2
  26. ^ Continuation of white elephants could still provide some relief
  27. ^ [1]



Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

Wikipedia has an article on:





In Siam elephants were working animals. However, white (albino) elephants were considered sacred and therefore were not to be put to work. The owner was then left to feed the elephant but could get no work from it. It is said that the King of Siam used to make a present of a white elephant to courtiers he wanted to ruin.


A 19th century Thai white elephant.

white elephant

white elephants

white elephant (plural white elephants)

  1. An albino elephant.
  2. (idiomatic) An ornament etc that is unwanted or is a financial burden; an unprofitable investment.

See also



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