White elephant

White elephant

A white elephant is a valuable possession which its owner cannot dispose of and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) exceeds 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 the kingdom was blessed with peace and prosperity. [ [http://www.circleofasia.com/Elephants-in-Thailand-Elephant-National-Symbol-of-Thailand.htm Elephants in Thailand: Elephant-National Symbol of Thailand ] ] 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. [ [http://kadampa.org/en/reference/the-birth-of-buddha/ The Birth of Buddha | The New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) ] ] 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.

Examples of notable alleged white elephants

* Hughes H-4 Hercules (or "Spruce Goose"), often called Howard Hughes' white elephant before and during the Senate War Investigating Committee. Hughes' associate Noah Dietrich called it a "plywood white elephant". ["Howard Hughes: Hell's Angel" By Darwin Porter. Blood Moon Productions, Ltd., 2005 ISBN0974811815 p. 715]
* Bristol Brabazon, an airliner built by the Bristol Aeroplane Company in 1949 to fly a large number of passengers on transatlantic routes from England to the United States. [ [http://www.aviationarchive.org.uk/stories/pages.php?enum=GE121&pnum=0&maxp=9 An Aviation Heritage story ] ]
* 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: [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2003/04/13/do1307.xml] the British and French governments incurred large losses as no aircraft could be sold on commercial terms. [ [http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/europe/04/10/concorde.history/ CNN.com - The rise and fall of Concorde - Apr. 10, 2003 ] ] Concorde flew the transatlantic route for over two decades, and it did at least make a big operating profit for British Airways. [ [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/2935337.stm BBC NEWS | Business | Why economists don't fly Concorde ] ]
* 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. [ [http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/victorian_technology_02.shtml Victorian Technology, BBC] ]
* Montréal-Mirabel International Airport is North America's largest airport but has been abandoned as a passenger airport. [ [http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/03/international/americas/03canada.html?_r=1&oref=slogin The New York Times > International > Americas > End of Era Near in Montreal for White-Elephant Airport ] ] [ [http://www.airodyssey.net/articles/mirabel.html airodyssey.net - "Mirabel: The Airport where the Future is Past" ] ]
* 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. [ cite web | url=http://www.lambert-stlouis.com/e/newwebsite/id261.asp | title=The Expansion Story | accessdate=2007-07-25] 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. [ cite web | url=http://www.lambert-stlouis.com/index/about_Facts_oper_stat.html | title=Historical Operation Statistics by Class for the Years: 1985-2006 | accessdate=2007-07-25] [cite news | url=http://blogs.usatoday.com/sky/2006/04/st_louis.html | title=New $1 billion runway opens this week, but it's not needed anymore | publisher=USAToday.com | date=2006-04-11 | accessdate=2007-07-25] The project required the relocation of seven major roads and the destruction of approximately 2,000 homes in Bridgeton, Missouri. [ cite web | title=Airport/Mass Transit November 2005 - Feature Story | url=http://midwest.construction.com/2005/11/01/MC_11_01_2005_p27-01.asp | accessdate=2007-07-25] [ cite web | url=http://www.sdearthtimes.com/et0901/et0901s2.html | title=Airports and cities: Can they coexist? | accessdate=2007-07-25] 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. [cite news | title=St. Louis' airports aren't too loud: They're too quiet | url=http://www.usatoday.com/money/biztravel/2007-01-09-st-louis-usat_x.htm | date=2007-01-09 |publisher=USAToday.com | accessdate=2007-07-25] Even one of the airport commissioners, John Krekeler, deemed the project a "white elephant". [ [http://www.usatoday.com/travel/flights/2007-01-09-st-louis-usat_x.htm?imw=Y St. Louis' airports aren't too loud: They're too quiet - USATODAY.com ] ]
* HTMS Chakri Naruebet, a Thai aircraft carrier that has been criticized as having been built for nationalist reasons rather than applicable military uses.
* The United States Department of Defense (DoD) commissioned the Ada programming language, 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, but not widely, in many countries. It came to be known as the "Green Elephant" for the color code used to keep contract selection unbiased. It was considered irrelevant for commercial applications, and its developers underestimated the power of the free market and successful tools such as C++, Java, and the Internet protocols. [ [http://www.omg.org/mda/mda_files/02F-SIW-004-OMG.pdf HLA and the MDA ] ]
*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. [ [http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/news/archives/2005/08/17/when_is_a_white_elephant_not_a_white_elephant.html When is a white elephant not a white elephant? from Guardian Unlimited: News blog ] ] [ [http://www.mackinac.org/article.aspx?ID=4862 From Crystal Palace to White Elephant in 150 ... [Mackinac Center for Public Policy ] ] 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.
*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. ["First Signs of Change in Dour Capital"; "Christian Science Monitor", Boston, Mass.: Aug 26, 1992] Construction resumed in April 2008.
*Many consider the Olympic Stadium stadium in Montreal as a white elephant because it cost about C$1.61 billion. The debt from the stadium wasn't paid in full until December 2006.cite web
author = CBC News
title = Quebec's Big Owe stadium debt is over
publisher = Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
date = 2006-12-19
url = http://www.cbc.ca/canada/montreal/story/2006/12/19/qc-olympicstadium.html
format = HTML
accessdate = 2008-06-25
] Because of the financial disaster in which it left Montreal, it was nicknamed "The Big Owe", "Uh-O", and "The Big Mistake".Fact|date=October 2008

See also

* Boondoggle (project)
* Megaproject
* Megastructure


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Look at other dictionaries:

  • White elephant — White White (hw[imac]t), a. [Compar. {Whiter} (hw[imac]t [ e]r); superl. {Whitest}.] [OE. whit, AS. hw[imac]t; akin to OFries. and OS. hw[=i]t, D. wit, G. weiss, OHG. w[=i]z, hw[=i]z, Icel. hv[=i]tr, Sw. hvit, Dan. hvid, Goth. hweits, Lith.… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • white elephant — ˌwhite ˈelephant noun [countable] something that is completely useless, even though it cost a lot of money: • The hotel is unfinished and structurally unsound a white elephant of epic proportions. * * * white elephant UK US noun [C] ► something… …   Financial and business terms

  • white elephant — {n. phr.} Unwanted property, such as real estate, that is hard to sell. * /That big house of theirs on the corner sure is a white elephant./ …   Dictionary of American idioms

  • white elephant — {n. phr.} Unwanted property, such as real estate, that is hard to sell. * /That big house of theirs on the corner sure is a white elephant./ …   Dictionary of American idioms

  • white elephant — n [Date: 1800 1900; Origin: From the supposed practice of the King of Siam, who gave to people he did not like a white elephant, which cost a very large amount of money to keep] something that is completely useless, although it may have cost a… …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • white elephant — white elephants N COUNT (disapproval) If you describe something as a white elephant, you mean that it is a waste of money because it is completely useless. The pavilion has become a ₤14 million steel and glass white elephant …   English dictionary

  • White elephant — Something requiring much care and expense to maintain and yielding little profit, and often difficult to sell; any burdensome possession. [Slang] [Webster 1913 Suppl.] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • white elephant — A white elephant is an expensive burden; something that costs far too much money to run, like the Millennium Dome in the UK …   The small dictionary of idiomes

  • white elephant — white′ el′ephant n. 1) a possession unwanted by the owner but difficult to dispose of 2) a possession entailing great expense out of proportion to its value to the owner 3) mam an albino Indian elephant • Etymology: 1850–55; from the tale that… …   From formal English to slang

  • white elephant — n. 1. an albino elephant 2. something from which little profit or use is derived; esp., such a possession maintained at much expense ☆ 3. any object no longer desired by its owner, but of possible value to others …   English World dictionary

  • white elephant — noun count 1. ) an object that is useless and may have cost a lot of money 2. ) an important project that has failed very badly …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English