We attended our second White Elephant gift exchange last night. Tonight as we were eating or out shopping or someplace, Viv asked me where the term and the tradition came from.
I told her that I understood it to refer to a tradition in an Asian country, possibly Thailand, where white elephants are a sacred symbol of the king, and when found, become his property. The elephant. however, may not actually be delivered to the king, but instaed may lodge with whoever is deemed best able to keep it on the kings behalf – but at their expense.
The analogy to what Americans mean by the term is obvious, I think. But when and where did the White Elephant Party begin and when did it become so very widespread here?
I thought I’d invesitgate.
White elephant (1851) supposedly arose from the practice of the King of Siam of presenting one of the sacred albino elephants to a courtier who had fallen from favor; the gift was a great honor, but the cost of proper upkeep of one was ruinous.
The online edition of the 1894 Brewer Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has it thusly:
White elephant – King of the White Elephant. The proudest title borne by the kings of Ava and Siam. In Ava the white elephant bears the title of `lord,” and has a minister of high rank to superintend his household.
– The land of the White Elephant. Siam.
– To have a white elephant to keep. To have an expensive and unprofitable dignity to support, or a pet article to take care of. For example, a person moving is determined to keep a pet carpet, and therefore hires his house to fit his carpet. The King of Siam makes a present of a white elephant to such of his courtiers as he wishes to ruin.
(Siam is an antiquated name for the country we now call Thailand, just in case you never caught The King and I.)
This still leaves the matter of the factual basis of the story wide open, however. What King of Siam in particular? What year did this happen in? Does it still occur?
This unsourced but rather detailed and knowledgeable page discusses the roots of the animal’s importance and role in both Burma and Thailand, even directly addressing interactions between vistors from Britain and the United States in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, it does not discuss the American meaning of the word or cite a specific incident that paralells our usage of the word.
Further research found only anecdotal citations, so I’m concluding that while it’s surely possible that these animals were used in just such a stratagem, it’s unlikely that such an event was ever factually recorded. Furthermore, the term entered English at a time when it was common to denigrate non-European customs as impractical – the phrase ‘sacred cow’ forms a nice bookend with ‘white elephant’ – and the pejorative meaning with which Americans use the term appears to reflect this usage.
I shall examine the evidence for the growth of the White Elephant Party on the morrow, as the Google-hunt is likely to be more arduous.