White Elephant

Why are the “white elephant” gift exchanges called “white elephant”?

Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

My sister hosts one of these each year and claims to know the origin. It is supposedly from a myth/ fairytale/ story about two kingdoms where things started out as being well intentioned, and each gave the other gifts. In an effort to outdo one another, and show the other their kingdom was more prosperous, each made their gift more and more elaborate each year. Each consecutive year, the kingdoms went into further hock to try to outdo each other to the point where the actual gift giving became almost hostile. Then one decided to give the other a rare white elephant as a gift. The elephant was, indeed, meant to be another in this gift arms race, but had the added benefit of eating the recipient kingdom’s crops, rampaged through the village killing people and property, and finally making the other kingdom cry ‘uncle’ and admit they were ‘defeated’.

At least that’s the way I heard it…

White elephant, as in unwanted,usually extravegant ,ostentaious gift. Something expensive some one gives you, impresive, a great honor, and meant to be showed off but,
" What the Aich am I gonna do with that?"
The white elephant is rare,so rare that in parts of Asia it was (is) sacred. So sacred that it could not be used for work or war or anything except cerimonial disply. It was a great status symbol to have one to show off,even greater to have one to GIVE AWAY. So the Rajah of Richistan gives one to the Rajah of Podunkistan. Great honor all around,Podunks can’t turn it down,not just out of politness, now they got one too,
" Nyah,nyah Hickistan!" but the Podunks can’t do anything with it. It just stands around and eats and eats and eats and… the only thing to do is give it to Hickistan and hope the Richistanis don’t find out. Sorta like the fruit cake the boss gave you.

“Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.”-Marx

I just found this on the net (see what you get if you can search) now we have 2 explainations. Can anyone futher back up either of these?It seems that in the early part of the April of 1861, the Shah of Persia visited President Abraham Lincoln in Washington DC, and, as has always been the custom of the Persians, the Shah brought a gift.
No, not gold, nor frankincense, nor even myrrh, but a rare white elephant.

It seems the white elephant was received in Washington with some enthusiasm, and there was a bitter struggle in the President’s cabinet over who would get to be the keepers of the beautiful beast.

After some time and debate, the State Department won the right to house and care for the elephant. However, the huge pet’s welcome wore short fairly quickly when it was recognized that she could only eat and survive on the leaves of a specific tree that grew in Persia, and a tree which did not take kindly to life in the United States.

Needless to say, the supply of leaves brought over on the ship for the gift’s intake did not last too long. Now importing leaves from Persia became quite an expensive and ritualistic ordeal, and was quite costly to the State Department’s budget.

And so… when the War Department had a huge celebration after a particularly long and bitter battle that ended in victory for the Union, as a gift, the State Department bequeathed to them the white elephant.

The elephant spent little time at the War Department, however, and she was very quickly shuttled to the Smithsonian, then to the Department of Justice, and we are given to understand, back to the State Department, prior to her moving on to the Department of Treasury, then back to the Smithsonian, the War Department, the Vice President’s office, and the State Department.

This beautiful creature became a symbol of things we have, but don’t really want, a symbol of things we give to one another, that we find either useless, or more costly than they are worth, so pass on and on.

I do not know what finally became of the elephant, there is little mention of her in history after her move back to the State Department, where she started… but she is a part of American folklore.

There you have it, the story of the white elephant.

Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

Untrue. Here’s what Brewer has to say:

Other sources say the same thing – having it originate in Siam as a present by the king to people he wanted to ruin.

“East is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.” – Marx

Read “Sundials” in the new issue of Aboriginal Science Fiction. www.sff.net/people/rothman

What’s the idea there, that an albino elephant is so alien that it must have the digestive tract of a koala? I’ve seen elephants at the zoo eating hay, and they seemed just fine. Besides, people in the nineteenth century were considerably less, shall we say, sentimental about animals than we are today. A white elephant such as you describe, so burdening the State Department during the Civil War would certainly have quickly become a dead elephant.
But the meaning for the phrase that you get from this tale fits better with what I’ve always understood a “white elephant” to be: a possession of great value that nevertheless costs more to keep than it is worth.

Don’t believe everything that comes up in a web search.

From http://www.symbiosis-travel.co.uk/

Thailand’s highest honour is the Order of the White Elephant, which comes in at least 5 grades. www.thaigov.go.th/general/prime/chuan_e.htm

You can buy one here (the order, that is, not the animal): http://www.magma.ca/~egursual/foreign.html

Launcher may train without warning.