the mistaken origin of ‘white elephant’ in the Oxford English Dictionary

 

white elephant - Derbyshire Times - 30 September 1933

ELEPHANTS
of almost any colour, except
the pink kind, can easily
be disposed of through
OUR SMALL
ADVTS.
GET RID OF YOUR
WHITE ELEPHANTS
by sending a Small
Advt. to
“THE DERBYSHIRE TIMES,”
Station Road, Chesterfield.

from The Derbyshire Times (Chesterfield, Derbyshire) – 30th September 1933

 

 

Used figuratively, white elephant denotes a burdensome or costly objective, enterprise or possession, especially one that appears magnificent.

The Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2015) erroneously [see footnote] indicates that this figurative use refers to the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) would make a present of a white elephant to courtiers who had displeased them, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance.

No historical evidence supports this theory. On the contrary, these animals were considered much too precious to be bestowed as gifts, to such an extent that, it is said, in 1568 the king of Pegu (now Bago, in Burma) waged war on the king of Siam, who had refused to sell him a white elephant.

The figurative use of white elephant is first recorded in Cato’s Letters: or Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, And other Important Subjects, by the British writers John Trenchard (1662-1723) and Thomas Gordon (circa 1691-1750); originally published in the London Journal on 16th December 1721, the letter titled Of false Honour, publick and private contains the following:

(1755 edition)
White Elephants are rare in Nature, and so greatly valued in the Indies, that the King of Pegu hearing that the King of Siam had got Two, sent an Embassy in Form, to desire one of them of his Royal Brother, at any Price: But being refused, he thought his Honour concerned to wage War for so great an Affront. So he entered Siam with a vast Army, and with the Loss of Five Hundred Thousand of his own Men, and the Destruction of as many of the Siameses, he made himself Master of the Elephant, and retrieved his Honour.
Darius (I think it was Darius the Mede) found his Honour concerned to chastise the Scythians for having invaded Asia a Hundred and Thirty Years before; and lost a great Army to vindicate his Honour, which yet was not vindicated; that is, he missed the white Elephant. For,
In short, Honour and Victory are generally no more than white Elephants; and for white Elephants the most destructive Wars have been often made. What Man free, either by Birth or Spirit, could, without Pity and Contempt, behold, as in a late French Reign he frequently might behold, a Swarm of slavish Frenchmen, in wooden Shoes, with hungry Bellies, and no Cloaths, dancing round a Maypole, because their Grand Monarque, at the Expence of a Million of their Money, and Thirty or Forty Thousand Lives, had acquired a white Elephant, or, in other Words, gained a Town or Victory?
Instances are endless, or else I could name other People, who have employed themselves several Years in catching white Elephants by Sea and Land; but I am in haste to conclude.

This letter refers to a story told in The historie of the great and mightie kingdome of China (London, 1588), the translation by Robert Parke (floruit 1588-89) of Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reyno de la China (1585) by Juan González de Mendoza (1545-1618); according to this book, in “the mightie kingdome of Pegu”,

there is great store of prouision and an infinite number of people, and the king thereof is mightie: to whō (as we haue said) ye king of Cyan doth pay tribute, because he ouercame him in a battaile which he had wt him, in the yeare 1568. according vnto the common opinion: the occasion was, that vnderstanding, how that the saide king of Syan had in his power a white Elephant (whome those of the kingdome of Pegu do worship for God) the king sent to buy the same, and to giue for it so much as he would estéeme or value it: but he vtterly denied the same, and saide that he would not let him haue it for all that he had in his kingdom: the which caused so great anger vnto the king, that hee called together all the souldiers that he could make, with determination to get by force of armes, that which he could not by faire meanes and great ritches: in the which he did so great diligence, that in a fewe dayes hee had ioyned together an armie of a million and sixe hundreth thousande of men of warre, with whome hee departed vnto the saide kingdome of Syan, which was from his kingdome two hundreth leagues, and did not onely performe his pretence in bringing away the white Elephant, but did also make the king tributarie, as he is vnto this day, as hath bin declared vnto you.

The earliest instance of the adjective white elephantine, formed after white elephant, that I have found is from the Illustrated Times (London) of 31st January 1863:

The upper portion of that pleasant Bohemian world, that camaraderie of artists, authors, actors, and men about town (quorum pars magna fuit*) must have wondered what had become of that very genial entrepreneur, Mr. E. T. Smith. It was known that, without any loss to himself, he had transferred that white elephantine property, Drury Lane Theatre, to the active Mr. Falconer.

* quorum pars magna fuit: of which he was a great part – refers to the Aeneid, by the Roman poet Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro – 70-19 BC), in which the verb is fui, I was

 

note: I have exposed other errors in the Oxford English Dictionary in:
on errors in the Oxford English Dictionary
original meaning of ‘to see the elephant’
a curious case of misunderstanding in the Oxford English Dictionary
mistaken etymology of ‘not to give a XXXX’ in the Oxford English Dictionary
clew – clue
the authentic origin of ‘a pretty kettle of fish’
the multiple meanings and origins of ‘P’s and Q’s’
The usual explanation of ‘Hobson’s choice’ is fallacious.

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