A white elephant is an albino elephant, even though this is not the official term for them. Their skin is not white but has reddish-brown pinky color.
In Buddhism the white elephant is considered something sacred as well as a status symbol – because to afford such a beast it was necessary to have enough wealth and power.
For hundreds of years a white elephant was a white elephant, a rare and expensive animal. In English it was mentioned in 1663 in a travel book translation from Portuguese into English of Ferdinand Pinto by Henry Cogan. Like many translations, the book has more editing than translating, with the translator cheerfully admitting he omitted huge passages which were too complicated or too boring. Pinto himself travelled extensively though Asia as the book title suggests The Voyages and Adventures of Ferdinand Mendez Pinto during his Travels for the Space of One and Twenty Years. He also visited what is now Thailand and described war with Burma where the king of Burma demanded seven white elephants belonging to the King of Siam, who was described by Pinto as the “lord of the white elephant”.
Quite clearly a white elephant signified richness. It took over 200 years until the term began to be used figuratively as an idiom for a valuable possession of which its owner cannot dispose and which is not often worth its maintenance costs. And this happened in Thailand too. If the king did not like a top official, he had a solution. The king presented a top civil servant with a great present to underline how important that official was. This was a white elephant. Unfortunately it was so expensive that even a top mandarin was not able to pay for it and went bankrupt.
The first written reference in English to the idiomatic meaning of the term white elephant comes in a letter written in 1851 by the English novelist Geraldine Endsor. She wrote, “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.”
More or less from this time onwards, a white elephant was an investment or a business which is unprofitable because the costs of operation and maintenance is simply too high. Almost every business and every country has such a white elephant.
This is the story of the white elephant, from a sacred symbol of prosperity to an undesired gift and unprofitable undertaking.