A white elephant is a valuable possession which its owner cannot dispose of and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) exceeds its usefulness.
The term derives from the sacred white elephants
kept by Southeast Asian monarchs in Burma
. To possess a white elephant was regarded (and is still regarded in Thailand and Burma) as a sign that the monarch was ruling with justice and the kingdom was blessed with peace and prosperity. The tradition derives from tales in the scriptures which associate a white elephant with the birth of Buddha
, as his mother was reputed to have dreamed of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower, a symbol of wisdom and purity, on the eve of giving birth. Because the animals were considered sacred and laws protected them from labor, receiving a gift of a white elephant from a monarch was both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch's favour, and a curse because the animal had to be kept and could not be put to practical use to offset the cost of maintaining it.
Examples of notable alleged white elephants
- Hughes H-4 Hercules (or "Spruce Goose"), often called Howard Hughes' white elephant before and during the Senate War Investigating Committee. Hughes' associate Noah Dietrich called it a "plywood white elephant".
- Bristol Brabazon, an airliner built by the Bristol Aeroplane Company in 1949 to fly a large number of passengers on transatlantic routes from England to the United States.
- Concorde, a supersonic transport built by Aérospatiale and British Aircraft Corporation, intended for high-speed intercontinental passenger travel. Only fourteen production aircraft were built, though it was planned that development costs were to be amortized over hundreds of units: the British and French governments incurred large losses as no aircraft could be sold on commercial terms.Concorde flew the transatlantic route for over two decades, and it did at least make a big operating profit for British Airways.
- SS Great Eastern, a ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. She was the largest ship ever built at the time of her launch in 1858, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers around the world without refuelling, but was not a commercial success. Her hold was later gutted and converted to lay the successful 1865 transatlantic telegraph cable, an impossible task for a smaller vessel.
- Montréal-Mirabel International Airport is North America's largest airport but has been abandoned as a passenger airport.
- Lambert-St. Louis International Airport runway 11/29 was conceived on the basis of traffic projections made in the 1980s and 1990s that warned of impending strains on the airport and the national air traffic system as a result of predicted growth in traffic at the airport. The $1 billion runway expansion was designed in part to allow for simultaneous operations on parallel runways in bad weather. Construction began in 1998, and continued even after traffic at the airport declined following the 9/11 attacks, the purchase of Trans World Airlines by American Airlines in April 2001, and subsequent cuts in flights to the airport by American Airlines in 2003. The project required the relocation of seven major roads and the destruction of approximately 2,000 homes in Bridgeton, Missouri. In addition to providing superfluous extra capacity for flight operations at the airport, use of the runway is shunned by fuel-conscious pilots and airlines due to its distance from the terminals. Even one of the airport commissioners, John Krekeler, deemed the project a "white elephant".
- HTMS Chakri Naruebet, a Thai aircraft carrier that has been criticized as having been built for nationalist reasons rather than applicable military uses.
- The United States Department of Defense (DoD) commissioned the Ada programming language, designed to be a single, standard language, particularly suitable for embedded and real-time systems. The DoD mandated the use of Ada for many software projects in 1987, but removed the requirement in 1997. It is still used, but not widely, in many countries. It came to be known as the "Green Elephant" for the color code used to keep contract selection unbiased. It was considered irrelevant for commercial applications, and its developers underestimated the power of the free market and successful tools such as C++, Java, and the Internet protocols.
- The Millennium Dome in London, built at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds in Greenwich in London to celebrate the millennium, was commonly termed a white elephant. The exhibition it initially housed was less successful than hoped and the widely criticised building struggled to find a role after the event. It is now The O2, an arena and entertainment centre.
- Osborne House, East Cowes, Isle of Wight, England, was one of Queen Victoria's favourite royal residences. She died there on January 22, 1901. In her will, she asked that it be kept in the Royal Family, but none of her family wanted it, so Edward VII gave Osborne to the nation. With the exception of Princess Louise and Princess Beatrice, who each retained houses on the estate, the rest of the royal family saw Osborne as something of an inaccessible white elephant.
- The Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, designed as the world's tallest hotel, began construction in 1987. Due to financial difficulties, construction ceased prematurely in 1992. Since then, the structure has remained as a massive concrete hulk, unfit for habitation. Construction resumed in April 2008.
- Many consider the Olympic Stadium stadium in Montreal as a white elephant because it cost about C$1.61 billion. The debt from the stadium wasn't paid in full until December 2006. Because of the financial disaster in which it left Montreal, it was nicknamed "The Big Owe", "Uh-O", and "The Big Mistake".