What does the idiom "white elephant" mean?

Are you using the idiom white elephant but not sure about its meaning? Using idioms, which are important elements of spoken and written language, in the right place strengthens your language skills. Examine the meaning of the white elephant idiom and the situations in which it is used.

Meaning of "white elephant"

Meaning

The phrase 'white elephant' has come to mean a possession that is burdensome or expensive to maintain, yet useless or of limited value. It is often used to describe a gift or possession that is received and considered to be an unwelcome burden, as the cost of ownership often outweighs any benefit it brings.

Etymology

The origin of the phrase 'white elephant' is believed to have come from the ancient practice of kings of Siam (now Thailand), who bestowed a white elephant on members of their court whom they considered to have offended them. These white elephants were considered sacred and thus could not be put to work or given away, leaving their owners to bear the burden of upkeep and feeding.

Usage

The phrase 'white elephant' is used to describe a possession that is both costly and burdensome to maintain and of limited or even negative value. It is often used in reference to a gift or possession that was received and considered to be an unwelcome burden, as the cost of ownership often outweighs any benefit it brings.

Example Sentences

  • My aunt gave me an old sewing machine, which has turned out to be a real white elephant. It's too complicated for me to use, and I can't even find anyone who wants to buy it.
  • When we bought our house, we thought it was a great deal — but it's turned out to be a white elephant. The repairs have been constant and expensive, and we haven't been able to get our money back.
  • I got a new car for my birthday, but it's turned out to be a white elephant. I'm having trouble paying for the gas, and I can hardly afford the insurance.

The meanings of the words in the "white elephant" idiom

The universal role of idioms

"Kill two birds with one stone" is an English idiom that means to accomplish two things with a single action. In French, the similar idiom is "Faire d'une pierre deux coups," which translates to "To kill two birds with one stone." This idiom highlights the efficiency of completing two tasks with one action.

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