Monday, June 23, 2014

Two-and-a-half Idioms - the History and Etymology of "White Elephants"



“Elephant in a Raffle,” “White Elephant,” and “the Gift of the White Elephant”  –  

a History and Etymology of Two-and-a-half Idioms 

Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines a “white elephant” as “something that requires a lot of care and money and that gives little profit or enjoyment.”  But why a “white elephant”?  Wouldn’t any old elephant require a lot of maintenance without giving much profit?  An average elephant can eat upwards of 300 pounds per day; not to mention the corresponding need to shovel or hose down 300 pounds of waste per day.   A Thai lumberman, a zookeeper, or circus ring-master might find elephants useful, but for the most part, what would any of us regular folks do with an elephant?  As it turns out, however, regular elephants were used in an idiom that meant precisely the same thing.  Before people referred to burdensome things as “white elephants” (1851), they referred to people who possessed something burdensome as being, “like the man who won an elephant at a raffle” (1848).  Only later (1859) did the idiom, “gift of the white elephant” emerge; probably as a mash-up of the two earlier idioms.


Why White Elephants?

A popular version of the story is that, “[i]f a Thai King became dissatisfied with a subordinate, he would give him a white elephant. The gift would, in most cases, ruin the recipient.” Phrases.org.uk.  The historical record, however, does not support that explanation.  Although the idiomatic use of “white elephants” does, in fact, derive from the treatment of white elephants in Southeast Asia, the story of giving them as gifts for the purpose of burdening or ruining a rival is only a myth.  White elephants were so valuable that no one but the king was permitted to own them.  Giving them as gifts to subordinates was out of the question. 


In Southeast Asia, regular elephants were routinely used as beasts of burden, transportation, and military assets.  White elephants, on the other hand, were spared from labor on religious grounds.  Buddha is said to have been conceived in an immaculate conception that involved a white elephant.  In a story that pre-dates the story of Jesus’, perhaps more-familiar, virgin birth, a white elephant inhabited by Buddha's spirit appeared to Buddha’s mother in a dream to plant the seed.  White elephants are also very rare, adding to their mystique and value.



Europeans were familiar with white elephants, and their high place in Southeast Asian cultures, from at least as early as the 17th Century.  An account from the 1630s, for example, mentions that, “the Siamese, and the people of those parts, say, they are the Kings of the Elephants; in so much as the King of Siam, when he meets with one, causes him to be served in Vessels of gold, to walk under a Canopy, and allows him a Princely train.”  Adam Olearius (translated by John Davies), The Voyages and Travells of the Ambassadors Sent by Frederick Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy, and the King of Persia: Begun in the Year M.DC.XXXIII, and Finish’d in M.DC.XXXIX: containing a compleat history of Muscovy, Tartary, Persia, and other adjacent countries : with several publick transactions reaching near the present times : in VII books. The second edition corrected. London: printed for John Starkey, and Thomas Basset, 1669.

By the early 1800s, white elephants were “well known in Europe to be objects of veneration, if not of worship, in all the countries where the religion of Buddha prevails.” The Athenaeum, volume 2, page 543, 1828 (excerpt from John Crawfurd, Journal of an Embassy from the Governor-General of India to the Courts of Siam and Cochin China, London, Henry Colburn, 1828).   

The gist of all of the early sources is that: the kings in Southeast Asia (usually the Kings of Siam, Pegu and Ava) valued the possession of white elephants; so much so, that wars were fought over the possession of white elephants.  Thee rightful possessor of the white elephant wore the title, Lord of the White Elephant. 

But for all of the time, effort, and ink spent in detailing the customs of Southeast Asia, their leaders, and their white elephants, not one of the early, first-hand accounts describe the practice of giving white elephants away as gifts to ruin, or reign in, a subordinate. 


The idiom, “the gift of the white elephant” (from the late 1850s) appears to conflate two earlier elephant idioms; “white elephant,” meaning a useless burden (from at least as early as 1851, and perhaps much earlier), and “the man who won an elephant in a raffle,” meaning a person who comes into possession of a burdensome object (attested from as early as 1848).  “White elephant swap” (1900s) and “white elephant sale” (1910s) came much later.

Early Figurative Use of “White Elephant”


The earliest, figurative use of “white elephant” that I could find comes from the pen of Frederick (II) the “Great,” King of Prussia.  In 1750, the philosopher/writer Voltaire accepted a position as court philosopher for Frederick II.  During the preliminary negotiations to retain his services, Frederick wrote to Voltaire, comparing him to a “white elephant:”

“You are 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.”  He promised him at the same time 2000 dollars for travelling expenses.

Thomas Campbell, Esq., Frederick the Great and his Times, Chapter XXIII (published in Waldie’s Select Circulating Library, (Philadelphia) Volume 1, page 214.[i]

Voltaire initially refused, but ultimately accepted a subsequent offer.  Frederick, true to his word, kept Voltaire like a white elephant; Frederick, “gave his friend the cross of Merit, a chamberlain’s key, a salary of 20,000 livres per annum, and settled an annuity for life of 4000 on his niece Madame “Denis.”  On its face, Frederick's comment appears to use “white elephant” in the sense of something desirable to be fought over, not necessarily a burden.  However, if we read between the lines, and in light of the financial commitment required to secure his services, perhaps the King was making an oblique, teasing comment about the burden of retaining a philosopher/writer, who brings no apparent benefit apart from the perceived prestige of association with a great personage.  If read in the latter sense, Frederick the Great, “der alte Fritz,” may have been the first person to use of the “white elephant” idiom in its modern sense.  If taken on its face value, however, Frederick merely made a figurative allusion to white elephants in a sense unrelated to the modern idiom.  The idiom certainly did not take the world by storm in 1750; I could not find another idiomatic use of “white elephant” until the 1840s.

“White elephant” was used again in 1844, in the sense of something valuable to be fought over; not in the modern sense of the idiom:

The ‘Augusburg Gazette’ has been from time to time more or less employed by every continental government, not even excepting France, in various controversies respecting matters of internal and external policy.  Like the white elephant of the eastern princes, its acquisition as an auxiliary has been the subject of many a diplomatic contest; but its support of the interests and principles of Austria – and, indeed, of the pure monarchical principle in general – is much more marked than its devotion to any other continental power.

Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science and Art, volume 3, October, 1844, page 172. 

The modern idiom was not far behind.

“White elephant” – as a Burden

The earliest attestation of “white elephant,” in the modern idiomatic sense of a burden, dates to 1851. [ii]  In a personal letter, which remained unpublished until 1892, Geraldine Jewsbury complained about an anonymous annoyance (his name was redacted):

"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."

Letter 116, London, Monday, July 23, 1851, Selections from the Letters of Geraldine Endsor Jewsbury to Jane Welsh Carlyle, edited by Mrs. Alexander Ireland, London, Longmans Green, 1892, page 414.

It is unclear from the letter whether the expression was in general use before she wrote the letter, or whether she coined the expression on her own.  Although the use of the phrase in a private letter would not have contributed to the spread of the expression in the general public, Geraldine Jewsbury was plugged into the heart of British literary society, and may well have influenced the spread of the phrase, even without publishing it under her own name at the time. 

Geraldine Jewsbury was ahead of her time in many ways.  She remained single her entire life, and kept up a loving relationship with the unhappily married, Jane Carlyle (her correspondent in her collected letters).  The editor of her letters, who knew both women well, described Miss Jewsbury as “feminine” and Mrs. Carlyle as “nearly masculine.”  Their love, she said, “if it did not ‘pass the love of woman,’ it certainly reached the utmost boundary of which that sacred ‘relationship of the spirit’ is capable.”  A modern reader might surmise that the two carried on a lesbian relationship, or at least long-term flirtation.

She came from a literary family.  Her older sister, Maria, published a collection of letters in 1829 (Letters of Maria Jane Jewsbury, Boston, Perkins & Marvin, 1829).  Maria's letters are full of obscure literary references and general advice about what sorts of books to read.  Geraldine was also a successful writer and editor in her own right; she worked for the British literary magazine, Athenaeum, and was personally recruited by Charles Dickens to work on his magazine, Household Words.  She published at least six novels, as well as numerous short stories.

The phrase, “white elephant,” appeared in Charles Dickens’ magazine, Household Words in 1854, in the modern, idiomatic sense, similar to Geraldine Jewsbury's use of the phrase.  In a description of a man burdened with the unfortunate given-name of “Prince Regent Mumchance”:

This curious Christian name is a sore point and grievous stumbling-block with Mumchance.  The Prince Regent is his old man of the sea, his white elephant of Ava.

George Augustus Sala, Tattyboy’s Renters (printed in Household Words (Conducted by Charles Dickens), Volume 9, Number 223, page 467.[iii] 



In 1867, playwright-poet William Brough referred to a “white elephant” in his version of Pygmalion.  The sculptor Pygmalion, whose sculpture of a beautiful woman has come to life, laments that she cannot love him because she has no heart; she is a burden – nothing more (he was less concerned about her lack of brains):
Make up her mind? Alas! She’s none to make up. 
In vain with praise her lovliness I flatter;
Tell her she’s fair – as for no mind – no matter.
If she’d but love me! She replies she can’t.
I’ve heard of folks with a white elephant;
Of a strange thing made by one Frankenstein;
But all their troubles never equaled mine.
A thing of beauty I would fain adore,
Left on my hands a burden – nothing more.

Pygmalion, or The Statue Fair; an Original Burlesque, London, T. H. Lacy, 1867.


The idiomatic use of “white elephant” to refer to useless or expensive burdens seems to have come into its own in the 1850s.  The expression, "gift of a white elephant," followed later, although possibly influenced by another, earlier expression.


To Win an Elephant in a Raffle

Just before and during the 1850s, a rival idiom was often used to express similar sentiments.  A person who was in possession of something burdensome was said to be, “like the man who won an elephant in a raffle.” 

The earliest attestation of the “elephant in a raffle” is from 1848, three years before Geraldine Jewsbury used “white elephant.”   The “elephant in a raffle” idiom appeared in a piece of political satire lampooning Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s (the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) ineffectiveness in his new as President of France (the Second Republic).  The piece took the form of an imaginary exchange of letters between Louis Napoleon and the noted dandy and bon- vivant, Count d’Orsay. Louis complains to the Count about the burdens of the Presidency and his inability to get anything done:

Chere Comte, . . . [a]ll this is a vast mission for a single man; and I begin to feel unequal to the actual situation.  What is to be done?  I repeat, it is embarrassing to sit with the eyes of Europe upon one. Furnish me, my dear friend with a programme. 

Count d’Orsay replied:

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.  It is indeed embarrassing.  You cannot satisfy everybody.

Punch, Volume 15, page 263 (1848).

The reference to “an anecdote told of” the “elephant in a raffle” suggests that the phrase may have been in use prior to this appearance in Punch.  If the expression had been in use, however, it was apparently not in very widespread use.  The 1848 attestation is the only reference that I could find before 1849.  During and after 1849, however, the expression exploded into common, popular use in Britain and the United States after Punch recycled the expression in a popular poem; a poem that was widely reprinted and quoted in the British and American press.

In 1849, France sent an army to Rome to retake Rome for the Pope.  Punch marked the occasion with a poem:
In For It – How to Get Out of It.

Once on a time there was a gentleman who won an elephant in a raffle.
It was a very fine elephant, and very cheap at the price the gentleman paid for his chance.
But the gentleman had not place to put it in.
Nobody would take it off his hands.
He couldn’t afford to feed it.
He was afraid of the law if he turned it loose into the streets.
He was too humane to let it starve.
He was afraid to shoot it.
In short, he was in a perplexity very natural to a gentleman with – moderate means, a small house, common feelings of humanity – and an elephant.
France has won her elephant at Rome.

Punch, Volume 16, page 115 (1849). 

The “elephant in a raffle” came into wide use immediately.  In the United States, the expression was immediately borrowed and applied to Presidential politics:

The Elephant of the Whigs. Most of those who desire “to see the elephant”[iv] reap disappointment for their pains – but no case of the kind is half so flagrant as that of the Whigs and their “mere soldier” President:

This thing of having a President, when you have no use for him, and when he costs you politically, more than he comes to, is not what it is cracked up to be.  The man of whom the London Punch tells the following story, no doubt thought, when he took a chance in the raffle for an elephant, that it would be a very fine thing to win so large a prize.  He, like the Whigs when practicing all manner of deception to elect Gen. Taylor, probably never dreamed of the perplexities that might follow success.

[(reprint of the excerpt from Punch shown above)]

Punch does not inform the world what the gentleman did with his elephant.  If he attempted to make the most of him by driving him through the county as a show, we hope he succeeded better than the Whigs have done in their efforts to put their “hard bargain” to some use.  Finding him on their hands and good for nothing else, the bright idea struck them that he would answer first-rate to travel through the country just before elections, and scare up large Whig majorities.

They tried that – but, good gracious! look at the returns!

The North-Carolina Standard (Raleigh), November 21, 1849.  The writer was crowing about Democrat gains in the House of Representatives in 1849 (the elections in each state were not synchronized then, as they are now; nearly half of the Congressional elections took place in the odd-numbered year 1849, many of those in late in 1849).

Over the next twenty years, the phrase became very well known.  Charles Dickens, for example, used the phrase in his magazine, Household Words, in 1853 (volume 7, number 37, pages 270, 273).  The phrase was so common by 1868, that a Southern newspaper criticized Horace Greeley's use of the tired, worn analogy:

Of course, Mr. Greeley, we have all heard of the winner of the elephantine prize, and because you are bankrupt in the way of illustrations and allusions is no reason why you should drag before us for about the millionth time this case of unlucky success in raffle-drawing.

The New Orleans Crescent, September 29, 1868.

Perhaps the time was ripe for a new idiom? 


The Gift of the White Elephant – a New Idiom

The new idiom seems to have started in England, but quickly found its way to North America. When Canada was in the process of purchasing the Northwestern Territory from the Hudson Bay Company, the English magazine Pall Mall wondered whether the apparent blessing was really a curse, in disguise:

Canada’s White Elephant. From the Pall Mall Gazette.
Curses as well as blessings often come in disguise.  The end of a long struggle for a desired possession is not unfrequently the beginning of unexpected trouble.  It was a great victory on the part of Prussia to expel Austria from Germany.  It was a splendid triumph of Napoleon III to secure the title while wielding the scepter of his uncle.  Yet neither Count Bismark nor the Emperor Napoleon may have forseen the trials which awaited him on the morrow of success.  Thus it may be with the Dominion of Canada, unless, as we hope, the rule shall in this case be illustrated by a brilliant exception. . . .

Should their success be equal to their hopes, and to the expectations formed by their well-wishers, they will demonstrate to the world that while the gift of a white elephant is certain to prove the ruin of those who are unworthy of the honor, it is an increase of glory to those capable of sustaining the burden and qualified for appreciating the boon.

The Evening Telegraph (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), May 13, 1869.

In 1870, at the height of the Franco-Prussian war, Emperor Napoleon III (the former President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte) abandoned its occupation of Rome, returning the Eternal City to the recently unified Italian Republic.  In an ironic twist, Louis-Napoleon had successfully re-gifted Rome to Italy in what may have been the first-ever “white elephant” gift exchange:  

In some respects, the gift of Rome and the Vatican to Italy will be like the gift of a white elephant.  But for the constant craving of the patriotic party for their “national capital,” and the appearance of subserviency which the deference to France and the other Catholic Powers has kept up, Italy would have had less to fear without Rome than she will have with it.  No Power in Europe really homogeneous and pacific will be so constantly embroiled in disputes affording excuses for invitations, if excuses are wanted, as the guardian of the head of the Roman Church.

The Economist, Volume 28, Number 1,414, October 1, 1870, page 1194.

Keeping it in the family, Napoleon III’s wife, the Empress, was, herself, a “white elephant: 

The journey of the Empress to the East is said to have given her great satisfaction, and, certainly, if the magnificence of the reception she met with in her travels could give her pleasure she could not fail to be pleased with the remembrance.  The cost of her visit to the Sultan must have been attended with a result not much inferior in its effects to that produced on an individual in Siam by the gift of a white elephant.

Colburn’s United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal, 1870, Part I, London, Hurst and Blackett, page 111.

Empress Eugénie may have been like the proverbial "gift of the white elephant," but she was not like an actual white elephant.  White elephants were never given as gifts.

Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie Receiving Ambassadors from Siam - 1864

“Gift of the White Elephant” is a Misnomer


But, the new idiom  was not entirely new.  It appears to be merely a modification of the earlier, “elephant in a raffle” expression.  Not only are the two expressions nearly identical in form and meaning, the new expression has no basis in historical fact.  The concept of giving the “gift of a white elephant” is completely foreign to all of the early, first-hand accounts of white elephants in Asia.  It seems unlikely that actual knowledge of white elephants would have resulted in the “gift of the white elephant” idiom, absent any basis in fact, without the influence of the earlier “raffle” idiom.  

The “gift of the white elephant” idiom first appears in 1859, in Henry Walker’s colorfully-titled, A Volume of Smoke, in Two Puffs, With Stray Whiffs from the Same Pipe.  In explaining why poet was not, generally speaking, a full-time occupation:

Pegasus [(who represents art and poetry)] is very much like the white elephant which the King of Ava presents to obnoxious courtiers, - he confers an inestimable honour upon the possessor, but he is a terribly expensive animal to keep, and would soon eat a man of moderate means out of house and home.

Arthur Hall, Virtue, & Co., London, 1859. 

Although the analogy may have been apt, the facts underlying the analogy were groundless.  Perhaps he had taken too many puffs or whiffs of the wrong pipe?

In 1863, Charles Dickens upped the “gift of the white elephant” ante, with an extensive, flawed “explanation” of the purported practice of the gift-giving habits of Southeast Asian kings:

When the King of Siam has an enemy among his lords whom he detests, but whom it would not be polite to destroy publicly – one who must be dispatched without long delay, but whose poison must be sweetened, and for whom the edge of the axe must be gilded – he sends him a white elephant.  Not that the gift is one of either profit or pleasure, for the brute must not be shot, nor given away, nor put to mean uses of hire or labour; he must not carry a howdah nor drag a plough; but must be cared for and fed and pampered and adulated, and kept, like a tough-skinned Apis as he is, in the splendid idleness of a four-footed god.”  

. . . .  Neither is the kingdom of Siam, nor that of Persia, mentioned in a recent number, the only place where one receives white elephants, to the destruction of happiness and life; and that intelligent pachyderm, with his waving trunk and flapping ears, his caution, his cunning, and his “fidgetiness,” ids not the only form in which favours are received.  Friends and fortune often play the part of Siamese royalty, and offer us gifts of honour quite as ruinous and inconvenient.  What is it but a white elephant gift, when your brother abroad sends you a huge case full of foreign rarities, which you are by no means to part with to dealers or discriminating friends, but must house with reverence – first paying the cost of transit and custom-house dues?”

White Elephants, appearing in All the Year Round (conducted by Charles Dickens), Volume 8, January 31, 1863, page 488.

These early uses of the “gift of the white elephant” idiom, and the thorough, yet false, explanation of the idiom may have been expressive, but it was not based on facts.  They did, however, have an effect on the language.  Whereas, previously, burdensome things might have been described as either “white elephants” or an “elephant” won at a raffle, in the future, many things would be said to be “like the gift of the white elephant.”  The tidy explanation may also have misled generations of etymologists into falsely describing the history behind the phrase.

White Elephants Were Burdensome – Even if Not Given Away as Gifts


Even though white elephants were apparently never given as gifts, they were a burden on everyone, it seems, just not on the king.  Kings derived status and power from white elephants; used them as sources of revenue; and used them to exercise control over their people.  
White elephants were a burden on the people who lived in or near newly discovered white elephants, as well as the people who lived in or near any place through which the elephants were transported on their way to the royal palace:

From the earliest times the kings of Siam and Birmah have anxiously sought for the white elephant, and having had the rare fortune to procure one, have loaded it with gifts and dignities, as though it were a conscious favorite of the throne.  When the governor of a province of Siam is notified of the appearance of a white elephant within his bailiwick, he immediately commands that prayers and offereings shall be made in all the temples, while he sends out a formidable expedition of hunters and slaves to take the precious beast, and bring it in in triumph. A soon as he is informed of its capture, a special messenger is dispatched to inform the king of its sex, probable age, size, complexion, deportment, looks, and ways . . . .   Orders are promptly issued to the woons and wongses [(local officials)] of the several districts through which he must pass to prepare to receive him royally, and a wide path is cut for him through the forests he must traverse on his way to the capital.  Wherever he rests he is sumptuously entertained, and everywhere he is escorted and served by a host of attendants, who sing, dance, play upon instruments, and perform feats of strength or skill for his amusement, until he reaches the banks of the Meinam, where a great floating palace of wood, surmounted by a gorgeous roof and hung with crimson curtains, awaits him. . . .  His food consists of the finest herbs, the tenderest grass, the sweetest sugar-cane, the mellowest plantains, the brownest cakes of wheat, served on huge trays of gold and silver; and his drink is perfumed with the fragrant flower of the dok mallee, the large native Jessamine.

Anna Harriette Leonowens, The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Being Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bankok, Boston, Fields, Osgood, 1870, pages 141-142.   

Anna Leonowens is best known as the “I” in the King and I, or “Anna” from Anna and the King.  Her observations generally agree with all of the other early descriptions of white elephants in Siam and other parts of Southeast Asia. 

White elephants were also a burden on visiting dignitaries, who were required to present the white elephant with lavish gifts: 

A singularly absurd custom takes place in this country in certain forms of political homage shown to a white elephant, a preternatural animal kept for the purpose, superbly lodged near the royal palace, sumptuously dressed and fed, provided with functionaries like a second sovereign, held next in rank to the king, and superior to the queen, and made to receive presents and other tokens of respect from foreign ambassadors.

James D. Knowles and Ann Hasseltine Judson, Memoir of Mrs. Ann H. Judson, Late Missionary to Burma, Boston, Lincoln & Edmands, 1831, 4th Edition, page 114.

White elephants were also a burden on the people who lived on the white elephant’s estates:

The elephant has an appanage, or territory assigned to him “to eat,” like any other dignitary of the empire. . . . [I]n Burney’s time it was the rich cotton district of Taroup Myo.

Sir Henry Yule, A Narrative of the Mission Sent by the Governor-General of India to the Court of Ava in 1855, London, Smith, Elder and Co., 1858, page 134.

But white elephants were not particularly burdensome to the king, himself.  The elephants served as a source of revenue:

The lower order . . . perform the shiki, or obedience of submission, to the white elephant; but the chiefs view this as a vulgar superstition, and do not follow it.  When the present elephant was taken, the event was considered a joyous one; and the late King, who was fond of money, taking advantage of the circumstance, issued an order to the tributaries and chiefs, to ask pardon of the white elephant (Ka-dau), accompanied, of course, by the usual presents, which his majesty deposited in his coffers.

John Crawfurd, Journal of an Embassy from the Governor General of India to the Court of Ava in the year 1827, London, Colburn, 1829, page 141;

The most costly presents continued daily to be brought to it by all the Mandarins of the kingdom, and one is said to have offered a vase of gold weighing 480 ounces.  But it is well known that these presents and the eagerness shown in bestowing them, were owing more to the avaricious policy of the king than to the veneration of his subjects towards the elephant, for all these golden utensils and ornaments found their way at last into the royal treasury.

William tandy D. D. (translator), A Description of The Burmese Empire, Compiled Chiefly from Native Documents by the Rev. Father Sangermano, Rome, The Oriental Translatino Fund of Great Britain and Ireland, 1833, page 62.

The King of Ava, for his part, seemed unconcerned about the burden his white elephants created for his people (it's good to be the king):

While we were at Ava, a report was brought that a white elephant had been seen; but it was stated, at the same time, that its capture and transport on a sledge over the cultivated country would be accompanied by the destruction of ten thousand baskets of rice.  His Majesty is said to have exclaimed more with the enthusiasm of an amateur, than the consideration of a patriot king, “What signifies the destruction of ten thousand baskets of rice, in comparison with the possession of a white elephant?” and the order was given for the hunt.

Crawfurd, pages 140-141.

White elephants were burdensome on some people; just not the kings.  The purported, underlying meaning of the idiom, “gift of the white elephant,” is strictly a misnomer.


Conclusion


The phrase “white elephant” was used figuratively, in the sense of a burden, at least as early as 1851, if not as early as 1750.  The idiom, “like the man who won an elephant in a raffle,” is attested in 1848.  The newer idiom, “gift of the white elephant” emerged in about 1860.  The factual record of actual white elephants in Southeast Asia, strongly suggests that the new idiom was a conflation of the two earlier idioms, and not based on a true understanding of the treatment of white elephants in Asia. 

The Pop-Culture Legacy of White Elephants

Elephants, white elephants, and the idiom “white elephant” continued, and still continue, to have a place in pop-culture in the form of, “white elephant swaps,” “white elephant sales,” and P. T. Barnum’s “white elephant wars” of the 1870s.  “White elephants” also played a role in sports history, in the form of the first elephant to be credited with an error (nearly a put-out) in a professional baseball game, the 1905 World Series, and the mascot of the Philadelphia and Kansas City Athletics.  

You can read about the "white elephant wars" and elephants in baseball in my post, Buddhism and Baseball, the White Elephant Wars and White Elephants in Baseball.  You can read about the history of "white elephant" gift exchanges and "white elephant sales," as well as the history of "Yankee swaps," in my post, Two-and-a-half More Idioms - "White Elephants" and Yankee Swaps.


[i] Also, Lord Dover, The Life of Frederic the Second, King of Prussia, in Two Volumes, New York, J. J. Harper, 1832 (citing Supplement aux Oeuvres posthumes de Frederic II).
[ii] Assuming that the content of the 1892 publication accurately reflects the contents of her letter, as she wrote it in 1851; which is not always the case.  See, e.g. Peter Reitan, Dude: its earliest attestation thus far (1879) is unreliable, and Peter Reitan, Dude: Another supposed 1879 source of dude was written later: 1885, both in Comments on Etymology, Volume 43, number 8, May 2014 (four purported pre-1883 attestations of ‘dude’ have been proven to have been published after 1883).
[iii] Although stories in Household Words generally appeared anonymously, Tattyboy’s Renters was reprinted in a volume of works by Charles Augustus Sala in 1859. Gaslight and Daylight, with Some London Scenes They Shine Upon, London, Chapman & Hall, 1859, page 246.
[iv]To see the elephant” was an idiom that meant to see the town, see the sights, or see whatever big thing there is to see.

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