"" Writer's Wanderings: Word Origins--White Elephant

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Word Origins--White Elephant

I'm not sure where I picked up this book, Curious Word Origins, Sayings and Expressions, maybe at the Friends of the Library book sale (a place I need to avoid like I do the Godiva chocolate shop). But on occassion I pull it out and have a look at some of the common phrases we banter around. I opened it to "white elephant" this morning. How appropriate since we have a "white elephant" Christmas story in A Scrapbook of Christmas Firsts.

The saying or phrase usually refers to costly but useless possessions--some of those things you get as wedding gifts, perhaps, that are non-returnable. White Elephant has it roots in Siam. It was the custom for many centuries that a captured rare albino elephant would automatically become the property of the emperor and thereafter be sacred to him. Only the emperor could ride or use the elephant and it could not be destroyed without his permission. Because of that last caveat, whenever the emperor wanted to bring about the ruin of someone who had displeased him, he would gift the elephant to him. The cost of feeding and caring for the huge animal that he could not use or destroy would usually lead to his financial ruin.

Apparently Charles I of England received such a gift once and it so severely cut into his budget that the queen had to forego her usual spa treatments as a matter of tightening the purse strings. The keepers claimed that the elephant, in addition to his usual feed, also needed a gallon of wine a day.

Are you clutching any White Elephants?

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