Friday, 18 September 2009

Idiom: White Elephant

White Elephant

Have you ever heard of this term before?
Many zoos would love to have an animal that is white in colour. White tiger, white lion, white giraffe, white whale, white mouse... oops, not the white mouse. When people go travelling, they want to go to Hokkaido, South Korean, Canada to see white snow. Many years ago, the girls wanted to be Snow White and wish for their White Prince. Nowadays, most Asian girls like white skin and so they buy whitening mask, whitening night cream, whitening day cream, whitening toothpaste, "Milky Foot" to remove the dead skin under the foot ... Some even go into whitening their skin under their armpits!

So it does seem a white elephant is something to aim for.

But unfortunately, in English, it turns out that it carries a negative meaning.

How is it possible?

The story began in South Asian countries when the kings still rule their land. At that time, a white elephant is regarded as "ruling with justice and power"[1]. But because this animal is protected by the law, unlike all other elephants, the white elephants need not work. So if someone was being granted a white elephant at that time, it was both a blessing and a curse[1] -- the white elephant allows you to show off but in return you need to keep it in a good shape and cannot make it work for you.

In modern terms, it is something that has cost a lot of money but has no useful purpose[2]. Do you have something like that at home? Look inside your cabinet.

You may argue, "Hey! I remember that in the movie 'Anna and the King', Mr. Chow Yun Fat spreaded a fake news of somebody spotted a white elephant somewhere and he would go and pay that white elephant a visit, which eventually saved his life with this rumour." But do you remember that this rumour also almost got him killed? Anyway, it is nothing like the original book"Anna and the King of Siam" by Margaret_Landon.