Sunday, December 28, 2014

White Elephant Gift - the orgins and explanation

Many of us have participated in a White Elephant exchange.  We do so without even thinking.... where does the term white elephant come from? Why is the word used this way? Is a white elephant really a useless gift as the name implies when we use it at a gift exchange?

A white elephant is a possession which its owner cannot dispose of and whose cost, particularly that of maintenance, is out of proportion to its usefulness. The term derives from the story that the kings of Siam, now Thailand, were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance. In modern usage, it is an object, scheme, business venture, facility, etc., considered without use or value.

The term derives from the sacred white elephants kept by Southeast Asian monarchs in Burma (Myanmar), 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 reigned with justice and power, and that the kingdom was blessed with peace and prosperity. The opulence expected of anyone that owned a beast of such stature was great.

White elephants are actually Albino elephants that do exist in nature, usually being reddish-brown or pink - not really white-white.  Because the animals were considered sacred and laws protected them from labor, receiving a gift of a white elephant from a monarch was simultaneously a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch's favor, and a curse because the recipient now had an expensive-to-maintain animal he could not give away and could not put to much practical use.

In the West, the term "white elephant" relating to an expensive burden that fails to meet expectations, was popularized following P. T. Barnum's experience with an elephant named Toung Taloung that he billed as the "Sacred White Elephant of Burma". After much effort and great expense, Barnum finally acquired the animal from the King of Siam only to discover that his "white elephant" was actually dirty grey in color with a few pink spots. 

Actual White Elephant recently captured in the wilds of Myanmar

A war was fought in the 16th century between Thailand and Myanmar, then Siam and Burma respectively, over disputed ownership of four white elephants.

The expressions "white elephant" and "gift of a white elephant" came into common use in the middle of the nineteenth century.The phrase was attached to "white elephant swaps" and "white elephant sales" in the early twentieth century. Many church bazaars held “white elephant sales” where donors could unload unwanted bric-a-brac, generating profit from the phenomenon that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Many organizational and church fairs still use the term today. In general use a “white elephant” usually refers to an item that’s not useful (decorative) but may be expensive and odd.

Image of a ceramic White Elephants - similar to what was opened at our
Senior Couple White Elephant gift exchange.

Probably what you thought of in your minds eye when the concept of a White elephant was mentioned

Now you no the full story behind - the White Elephant gifts and how Thailand fits into this story.

No comments:

Post a Comment