[Ads-l] White Elephant (1851) precursors

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Tue Nov 28 15:37:58 EST 2017

The expression "White Elephant," as a gift that is expensive to maintain yet difficult to get rid of, resulted from a blending of two (maybe three) precursors; the sacred "White Elephant" of Southeast Asia, most notably those held by the King of Siam, an old story (true or not) from what contemporary reviewers calle the worst book ever written (published 1775) about Indian Nabobs giving elephants as gifts to people whom they wanted to bring to economic ruin, and the idiom (itself likely based on the story of the Indian Nabobs) "to be like the man who won an elephant at the raffle."

The standard explanation suggests "White Elephant" comes from the practice of Southeast Asian Kings to give away white elephants to rivals whom they wanted to burden with the expense of maintining a white elephant, which were famously kept in luxury and treated like royalty.  This explanation is inconsistent with all of the early references to white elephants in southeast Asia that describe them as valuable assets over which, on occasion, wars were fought.  They were valuable because they were sacred and visitors to the elephant's chambers were required to bring lavish offerings which (I imagine) the owners used for their own benefit.  There are no early accounts of white elephant gifts made to ruin rivals.

A book written by Charles Carraciolli and published in 1775, described by contemporary reviewers as quite possibly the worst book ever written, includes an anecdote about Indian Nabobs giving elephants (just plain elephants) to people they wanted to ruin.  The recipient was responsible for the expensive upkeep and maintenance, and they could not give it away or sell it without insulting their ruler who gave it to them, so they ended up losing money over time.  Whether this is actually true or not is another question.  But the story appears here for the first time.

The Indian Nabob gift-giving story was repeated in numerous reference and science books through the early 1800s, and appears to have taken on an air of legitimacy.

In the 1840s, the idiom of being like the man who won an elephant in the raffle appears.  The gist of the expression is essentially the same as the Indian Nabob story, except that the elephant is won in a raffle instead of being received as a gift.  The earliest example I've seen is from Punch magazine in 1848. [Humorous “letter” from Count D’or-y to L-s N-p-l-n.] “Cher Prince, “Your position reminds me of an anecdote told of the man who won an Elephant in a raffle, and was much perplexed what to do with his large prize.  You have won your Elephant.”" Punch, Volume 15, page 263, 1848. This expression was common in the United States throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

Reports of "White Elephants" maintained in luxury in Southeast Asia were published as early as the 1600s, and was repeated frequently throughout the 1700s and 1800s.  The expression was used figuratively on a few occasions, but not in reference to an expensive burden.  Reports first published in the 1840s suggest that Frederick II, King of Prussia, told Voltaire in 1750 that he was "like the white elephant, on account of which the Great Mogul and the Shah of Persia go to war, and the possession of which gives to him who has been fortunate enough to gain it a new title.  If you come hither, you shall stand at the head of mine, 'Frederick by the grace of God king of Prussia, elector of Brandenburg, possessor of voltaire,' &c."  Waldie’s Select Circulating Library, volume 1, Page 214 (number 42, page 6).  Frederick the Great and his Times. Edited by Thomas Campbell, Esq., Chapter XXIII. HathiTrust.

He kept him like a "White Elephant," giving him a cross of Merit, a chamberlain's key, and a salary of 20,000 livres per year and an annuity of 4,000 for his niece, but it was worth it to keep him for his talents and reflected glory.  It was not a useless burden.

By 1859, the traditional Indian Nabob story appears to have morphed into one moving the action to Siam and involving a "White Elephant," instead of an ordinary one.  Henry Walker wrote, "Pegasus is very much like the white elephant of which the King of Siam presents to obnoxious courtiers, - he confers an inestimable honour upon the possessor, but he is terribly expensive animal to keep, and would soon eat a man of moderate means out house and home."  A Volume of Smoke, in Two Puffs, With Stray Whiffs from the Same Pipe, London: Arthur Hall, Virtue, & Co., 1859.  Charles Dickens' magazine, All the Year Round, published a detailed description of the purported gift-giving practices of Southeast Asian Kings in 1861.

The figurative use of "White Elephant" appears in print regularly after 1859.

The "White Elephant" version may have been in circulation a bit earlier.  In a letter dated in 1851, from a memoir published in 1892, G. E. Jewbury is said to have written, "His services are like so many white elephants, of which nobody can make use, and yet that drain one's gratitude, if indeed one does not feel bankrupt." https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/white-elephant.html

The "White Elephant Wars" between Barnum and Forepaugh's circuses made "white elephants" well-known in the United States during the 1880s, which may have helped raise the relative popularity of the "White Elephant" idiom over the "winning an elephant in a raffle" idiom.



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