White Elephant.

Ross Bullen’s essay “Race and the White Elephant War of 1884” is, as you can tell by the title, not primarily about language, but this passage is linguistically interesting enough to excerpt:

Further complicating the relationship between human whiteness and white elephants is the fact that the English term “white elephant” is an inadequate and misleading translation of the Thai phrase for these animals. The Thai word for elephant is chang, and a white elephant is a chang pheuak. According to Rita Ringis, “chang pheuak . . . literally means ‘albino (or strange-coloured) elephant’, the usual word for the colour ‘white’ being different entirely.” Like virtually every other American or European who wrote about Siam and white elephants in the nineteenth century, Vincent was open about the fact that “white elephant” was a poor translation of chang pheuak. And yet he still describes these animals as “so-called ‘white’ elephant[s]”, glossing over what he admits is a semantic problem in order to cast creatures like Toung Taloung as racial imposters who — like a light-skinned African American — might try to pass as white in order to access the closely guarded privileges of white identity.

If the white elephant is viewed as an imposter because of its improper claim on whiteness, this conception of the animal as a kind of fraud is also supported by the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “white elephant” as both “a rare albino variety of elephant which is highly venerated in some Asian countries”, and “A burdensome or costly possession (from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance). Also, an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value.”

Although this story of the Siamese king and his ruined courtier does provide a compelling explanation for why “white elephant” can mean “an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value”, it is nevertheless a complete fabrication. Indeed, if read together, the OED’s two definitions for “white elephant” present a paradox: If white elephants are “rare” and “highly venerated”, why would the king of Siam give one away to punish a subordinate? Unsurprisingly, there is no recorded instance of this practice in Thai history. Nevertheless, this figurative definition of “white elephant” as a kind of fatal gift has had a lasting influence on the English language. It can be detected today in phenomena like “white elephant sales” or “white elephant gift exchanges”, but in the 1880s, “white elephant” was a common expression for any kind of useless or burdensome object.

There are some splendid illustrations (as well, of course, as a great deal of historico-cultural analysis).

Comments

  1. There’s also the joke about the elephant smuggler: he paints a white elephant gray to take it out of the country, then hands it over to an expert (an elephant-stripper?) to remove the paint. The expert reports back with good news/bad news: the gray paint came off, but so did the white.

  2. Elephant hunters of various sorts. I especially like the “known elephant in Cairo” (a reference to Don Knuth’s improvement on linear search) and the “hardware sales engineers”, who “catch rabbits, paint them grey, and sell them as desktop elephants.” This of course reflects an era in which a desktop computer was the smallest kind available.

    But I should like to know more about how the story about punishment by white elephant came to be believed so widely. In Lewis Carroll’s “Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter Writing” (1890), which is basically a serious piece comically expressed, he recommends keeping a register of abstracts of letters sent and received, with markup to connect them in a chain. One such chain is this:

    [Received] Ap. 1 (Tu.) Jones, Mrs. am sendg as present from self and Mr. J., a white elephant.

    [Received] Ap. 4. Manager, Goods Statn, G[reat] N[orthern] R[ailway]. White Elephant arrived, addressed to you — send for it at once — ‘very savage’.

    [Sent] Ap. 4 (F) Jones, Mrs. thanks, but no room for it at present, am sending it to Zoological Gardens.

    [Sent] d[itt]o. Manager, Goods Sta G.N.R. please deliver, to bearer of this note, case containg White Elephant addressed to me.

    [Sent] do. Dir. Zool. Gardens (enclosing above note to R.W. Manager) call for valuable animal, presented to Gardens.

    [Received] Ap. 9 Director Zoo. Gardens case delivered to us contained 1 doz. Port — consumed at Directors’ Banquet — much thanks.

    [Sent] do. T[elegram] Jones, Mrs. why call a doz. of Port a ‘White Elephant’?

    [Received] do. T Jones, Mrs. ‘it was a joke’.

    Note the 19C abbreviation “do.” for “ditto”, and the use, now confined to Americans, of periods after standard abbreviations that contain the last letter of the original term as well as those which do not, but not so in ad hoc abbreviations: thus Mrs. but not Statn takes a period.

  3. I remember discussing that list about twenty years ago, and just about everyone involved thought the “known elephant” was the funniest part.

  4. A bit surprised by the assertion that there is a paradox in the OED’s definitions. No, there isn’t. The idea is that a white elephant is venerated, so it’s a terrific honour to be given one and you certainly can’t refuse the gift. But because it’s venerated, it had to be treated very well, so it’s very expensive to keep – hence a punishment. All this is explained fairly clearly in the definition itself. Bullen doesn’t seem to be very bright.

  5. I assume the author is correct about Thai history, but a quick look at Google Books suggests that white elephants and their symbolism are by no means just a Thai thing. It appears that Frederick II described Voltaire as “like the white elephant for which the King of Persia and the Great Mogul make war”, and the Burmese court used to have one as well. Perhaps the story came from some other part of the Indosphere.

  6. Amusing historical anecdote re: Siamese elephants

    “In a gesture of friendliness between the two countries, King Mongkut sent two gifts to President Buchanan during the last month of his administration—a sword and a photograph of the King with one of his children. In an accompanying letter, dated February 14, 1861, King Mongkut said that he had heard that the United States had no elephants. As a remedy, he offered a gift of elephants—several pairs of them—that could be “turned loose in forests and increase till there be large herds.” The elephants would be useful in the unsettled parts of the United States, he continued, “since elephants being animals of great size and strength can bear burdens and travel through uncleared woods and matted jungles where no carriage and cart roads have yet been made.” President Buchanan’s successor, Abraham Lincoln, responded to the extraordinary offer. In a letter dated February 3, 1862, he graciously accepted the sword and photograph from the King but politely declined the elephants, explaining that the geography and climate of the United States do not “favor the multiplication of the elephant.””

    Lincoln wasn’t entirely truthful. There are parts of the United States where elephants would do just fine. Florida and Louisiana come to mind.

    Perhaps Lincoln rejected the offer, because both of these states were in state of rebellion at the time.

  7. It’s probably lucky that the US didn’t introduce wild elephants as an invasive species.

    However domesticated elephants might possibly have been useful, were it not for the invention of the steam engine.

    I don’t have enough knowledge of economics to work out whether working elephants would have been cost-effective in early 19th century America, as opposed to just exhibiting them. For a while, for example, people (including the US Army) thought that camels would be a good idea.

    In Asia domesticated elephants have been used to perform a whole lot of useful tasks for centuries. But it takes a lot to keep an elephant fed. Whether your typical Kansas farmer would want to keep an elephant to help with the plowing is an intriguing concept that has not really been put to the test.

  8. Trond Engen says:

    ECONOMISTS don’t hunt elephants, but they believe that if elephants are paid enough, they will hunt themselves.

    This is obviously true. It’s called hunting with bait. The sin of economics is not so much being cynical about incentives and motivation as assuming that in accepting the bait the elephants make a rational choice based on perfect information, and that these optimal micro-level decisions lead to the optimum macro-level outcome for all.

  9. A bit surprised by the assertion that there is a paradox in the OED’s definitions. No, there isn’t. The idea is that a white elephant is venerated, so it’s a terrific honour to be given one and you certainly can’t refuse the gift. But because it’s venerated, it had to be treated very well, so it’s very expensive to keep – hence a punishment. All this is explained fairly clearly in the definition itself. Bullen doesn’t seem to be very bright.

    Your analysis makes sense only if you think it makes sense that a powerful ruler would give away highly valuable and prestigious items to punish a subordinate who could equally well be punished by more ordinary (and cheaper) means such as dismissal and/or arrest and execution. Bullen and I find this idea ludicrous.

  10. Graham Asher says:

    The story might have been garbled. Perhaps the office of keeper of the white elephant was incompatible with any of the great offices of state; therefore, to be awarded that position was tantamount to dismissal from power. I am reminded of our own (English) office of the Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds. Not quite the same thing, but you’ll see what I mean: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiltern_Hundreds.

  11. ə de vivre says:

    Given the continuity of South East Asian monarchies into the 20th (and in Thailand 21st) century, if giving white elephants as burden was really a thing, wouldn’t we expect to have some record of a specific example of the practice rather than vague generalities by Europeans about how things are in Siam? We’re not talking about some out-of-the-way vanished culture, we’re talking about literate, long-lived states with established traditions of kingship and authority.

    I was under the impression that the burdensome sense of “white elephant” was a reference to Abul-Abbas, the elephant given to Charlemagne by Harun al-Rashid. But Wikipedia tells me that Abul-Abbas’s whiteness was a 19th century addition to the story, maybe itself influenced by the existing white elephant idiom.

  12. I’m considering writing an alternate history story now, in which herds of wild elephants still run wild in the Everglades.

  13. The white elephant story reminds me of a method supposedly used by Chinese emperors to destroy men who had become too rich: present them with a colossally costly gift, which they were expected to reciprocate with an equally costly gift. It is very similar to the white elephant story and raises the same doubts. Why would the emperor bestow such riches on an already rich subject? I have no source for this information that I can readily find. Maybe it too is apocryphal?

  14. American Hippopotamus: “At the dawn of the 20th century, America faced a meat shortage, which one enterprising Congressman planned to alleviate by importing hippopotamuses from Africa and raising them for food in in the swamps of Louisiana. His allies in the scheme were two veteran frontiersmen, who had spent a decade trying to kill one another in the African wilderness. In the second season of The Atavist Magazine Podcast, Jon Mooallem spins a bracing and eccentric epic of espionage and hippos.”

  15. Michael Eochaidh says:

    For the hippos, see also Sarah Gailey’s recent River of Teeth and its sequels.

  16. Domestic hippos is so beautifully over the top, it makes the elephants and ostriches seem positively pedestrian.

  17. Your analysis makes sense only if you think it makes sense that a powerful ruler would give away highly valuable and prestigious items to punish a subordinate who could equally well be punished by more ordinary (and cheaper) means such as dismissal and/or arrest and execution

    It makes sense if the point of the gift is mostly to demonstrate the ruler’s superiority to the one being punished. The Emperor can afford to give the gift, but the recipient can’t afford to maintain it. The recipient is humiliated and the Emperor appears more magnanimous than he would if he just had someone executed. It is also easy to imagine this sort of tactic being used against a popular subordinate or political upstart whom it would be unwise to attack directly. It would have also been a strategy to keep subordinates in debt.

    The latter tactic exists to this day in the business world, where in some companies junior people are expected to acquire expensive cars, watches, and clothing they can’t really afford, which means they have to work that much harder for the senior partners in order to generate the money to maintain the lifestyle expected of them.

  18. The latter tactic exists to this day in the business world, where in some companies junior people are expected to acquire expensive cars, watches, and clothing they can’t really afford

    But that’s not the same tactic. Sure, it makes sense to require people to maintain an expensive lifestyle; that was a favorite trick of lots of early modern rulers (keep ’em following fashions at Versailles and they won’t be starting rebellions in the provinces). But that costs you nothing. I know of no rich and powerful people who choose to make expensive sacrifices of their own property just to punish subordinates, and from what I know of human nature it’s a silly idea.

  19. ə de vivre says:

    I mean, we can speculate about the possible coherence of a hypothetical real white elephant gift, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe it happened other than “a bunch of 19th century Europeans who’d probably never seen an elephant or been to Thailand thought it was a good story.”

  20. Stephen Downes says:

    Very memorable phrase, from (I think) a Bristol City Councillor:

    “The council absolutely must reject this proposal. It is the thin end of the white elephant.”

  21. I mean, we can speculate about the possible coherence of a hypothetical real white elephant gift, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe it happened other than “a bunch of 19th century Europeans who’d probably never seen an elephant or been to Thailand thought it was a good story.”

    Quite so.

  22. The OED finds a quotation from the London Journal of 1721: “In short, Honour and Victory are generally no more than white Elephants; and for white Elephants the most destructive Wars have been often made.” This might refer only to an overpriced bauble, without the note of impoverishing its owner.

    The next quote is from a letter by Geraldine Jewsbury, of 1851: “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.”

  23. David Marjanović says:

    run wild in the Everglades

    Run, or everglades? I don’t think there’s enough solid ground there for elephants, or for running…

  24. Note that the OED says the term comes from a story, and doesn’t vouch for the truth of that story.

    In Harry Turtledove’s Federated Commonwealths alternate history, the New World was never settled by Homo sapiens, but served as a refuge for H. erectus. Consequently, the North American megafauna were never destroyed, and for two generations their railways were drawn by mammoths — until the coming of Richard Trevithick with his “Iron Elephant”. (He was born in Plymouth Commonwealth, but was obviously of Cornish descent.) Elephant handlers were imported from India to drive the “hairy elephants”; after two generations, the only Urdu they still speak is elephant commands.

  25. Marja Erwin says:

    “It’s probably lucky that the US didn’t introduce wild elephants as an invasive species.”

    Like horses and camels. And potentially cheetahs.

  26. Trond Engen says:

    My alternate history would have indian elephants in America well before Columbus, giving power to the civilizations of South and Central America. It might involve the Chinese, hiring skilled forest engineers from their southern neighbours in a failed attempt to take advantage of the North Pacific Gyre and establish a string of trade colonies along the western coast of North America, with a final stop somewhere in Mexico,

  27. Condors once lived from coast to coast. At European contact, they roamed from Baja California up to Washington. The remnant California population was brought back from the brink of extinction.

    Would it be too much to pine for a similar story for mammoths?

  28. I love all you guys.

    It’s great, after writing a referee report for an almost incomprehensibly bad manuscript, to be able to come back to Language Hat and read about domesticated megafauna in North America.

    Bring on the war glyptodons!

  29. if you think it makes sense that a powerful ruler would give away highly valuable and prestigious items to punish a subordinate who could equally well be punished by more ordinary (and cheaper) means such as dismissal and/or arrest and execution. Bullen and I find this idea ludicrous.

    You honestly can’t see a need for a king to have some effective way of curbing his over-ambitious and wealthy nobles that falls short of “disgrace or murder him and his family”?
    Think politically. (Think, for example, Versailles. Why didn’t Louis XIV simply have all the nobles of France beheaded? Why go to all the trouble of building an enormous palace, inventing huge amounts of court ceremonial etc?)

    Your point about expense is misguided. There is no free market in white elephants here. The king isn’t going down the shops, buying a white elephant, and giving it to the ambitious noble. The king gets the white elephants for free, because he’s the king.

    Similarly, “present them with a colossally costly gift, which they were expected to reciprocate with an equally costly gift. It is very similar to the white elephant story and raises the same doubts. Why would the emperor bestow such riches on an already rich subject?”

    — this raises doubts only because you assume that any costly gift from the emperor can be easily converted into ready cash. This may very well not be the case in a pre-capitalist society. So what you have here is the emperor forcing the subject to spend a lot of cash (that could otherwise be used to bribe officials or hire mercenaries) on a costly gift, in exchange for which the subject receives a gift of equal theoretical value but that he can’t go out and convert back into cash.

    I know of no rich and powerful people who choose to make expensive sacrifices of their own property just to punish subordinates, and from what I know of human nature it’s a silly idea.

    On my planet this behaviour is common, and we call it “a war”.

  30. I don’t have enough knowledge of economics to work out whether working elephants would have been cost-effective in early 19th century America, as opposed to just exhibiting them.

    Industrial elephants: in 1914, the two elephants in Sheffield Zoo were mobilised on the outbreak of war and spent the next four years working for Sheffield Forgemasters, hauling large castings around the factory. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-34573509 which for some reason only mentions one of them.)

    They were filling in for the foundry’s draught horses which had been themselves mobilised and sent to the Front.

    Elephants were, obviously, not routinely used as draught animals in Britain, but this is clearly not because they were completely unsuitable for that purpose. They were widely used as draught animals by the British Army in India up to the end of the 19th century, and in the civilian sector, mainly in forestry. As draught animals they have the key advantage over horses that they can generally load their own carts, as long as the cargo is made up of units light enough to be lifted by trunk. A horse-drawn cart needs people to load and unload it.

    Possibly the ratio of fodder needed to work done is better for a horse than an elephant (horses can pull a higher share of their bodyweight, but then elephants will need less fodder as a share of bodyweight, so could go either way), or, more probably, British industry was simply locked into using horses (stables, carts, grooms, vets etc. all set up for horses) and the transition would have been unacceptably costly.

  31. Not to mention elephants’ alleged fear of mice.

  32. I’m honestly not sure whether elephants are really afraid of mice or not, but they have other inherent problems: most importantly, they take a long time to train, because they’re tamed rather than domesticated. (There are actual biological differences between wild horses and domesticated horses; they have been selectively bred for usability for thousands of years.)
    Also they’re slow breeders, and the males are subject to musth.

  33. Not to mention elephants’ alleged fear of mice.

    This is obviously an urban legend. Pink elephants and white mice have often been seen together.

  34. “Lincoln wasn’t entirely truthful. There are parts of the United States where elephants would do just fine. Florida and Louisiana come to mind.”

    SFReader, elephants used to range up into northern China. They would do just fine at least as far north as Kentucky and all the way out to where the trees start to fail in Kansas and Oklahoma. Very closely related Columbian mammoths used to live in these areas.

    maidhc,
    Wild elephants in the South would be destructive of kudzu before anything else. That lush, protein-rich fodder would be irresistible and clearly the elephants’ first choice. We can count on them leaving the pine saplings in the pulp woods strictly alone.

    ” I know of no rich and powerful people who choose to make expensive sacrifices of their own property just to punish subordinates, and from what I know of human nature it’s a silly idea.”

    Hat,

    This presumes a specific meaning of “give” – to alienate property to another person. Monarchs “give” domains to nobles with no sense of them alienating anything. Those lands are held by the nobles, not owned, and the same is likely true of a treasure like a white elephant. It would be a very finely calibrated punishment that would allow the monarch/dictator to retain the services of a retainer while still inflicting pain.

  35. Good point; I hadn’t thought of it that way.

  36. Note Bullen’s other “white elephantology” paper in the list of writings linked at the end of the PDR one, which focussed more on the gift aspects and less on the racism aspects and had a longer footnote mention of Mauss and potlatches and that sort of thing (and which didn’t have illustrations).

  37. SFReader, elephants used to range up into northern China. They would do just fine at least as far north as Kentucky and all the way out to where the trees start to fail in Kansas and Oklahoma. Very closely related Columbian mammoths used to live in these areas.

    The straight-tusked elephant, hitherto known as Paleoloxodon antiquus, which inhabited Europe all the way north into Britain and Denmark during the Pleistocene, has recently turned out to have been the sister species of the extant African forest elephant, as its DNA sequence reveals. The African bush elephant is a more distant relative of those two. It follows that the genus Loxodonta, today restricted to Africa (and possibly invalidated by those analyses), is not the prisoner of the low latitudes either.

  38. David Marjanović says:

    Yeah, whether the African forest elephant should be called Palaeoloxodon cyclotis or the straight-tusked elephant should be called Loxodonta antiqua is now a matter of splitting vs. lumping.

  39. “Monarchs “give” domains to nobles with no sense of them alienating anything. Those lands are held by the nobles, not owned, and the same is likely true of a treasure like a white elephant. It would be a very finely calibrated punishment that would allow the monarch/dictator to retain the services of a retainer while still inflicting pain.”

    Ennoblement is used occasionally in British politics for the same reason; it’s a great honour to receive a title, but it also prevents you taking a seat in the House of Commons, and thus puts a pretty firm block on your political ambitions.
    As were other offices, as in Belloc’s “Lord Lundy”, in which a disappointing politician is told:

    We had intended you to be
    The next Prime Minister but three
    The votes were sold, the Press was squared,
    The Middle Class were quite prepared.
    But as it is! – My language fails!
    Go out and govern New South Wales!

  40. David Eddyshaw says:

    Lord Lundy was not debarred by rank from being Prime Minister. He was even Curator of Big Ben, before he was eventually constrained to leave the Cabinet.

    It was his tendency to burst into tears that did for him (presumably no bar to governing New South Wales.)

  41. Winston Churchill and his son Randolph did not get on well. However, one of the purported reasons that Winston declined the title of Duke of London was that, at the time, there was no legal way for Randolph to disclaim the title, which he felt would have ruined his own parliamentary career.

  42. David Eddyshaw says:

    Sir Anthony Wedgwood Benn
    Is one of the bravest of men.
    The worst in his life he can fear
    Is ending it as a peer.

    The Publius Clodius of our age.

  43. Oh, I don’t know. Tony Benn was a feminist by birth, whereas Publius Clodius triggered a huge sex scandal through his invasion of the rites of the Good Goddess in an attempt to sleep with Caesar’s wife. (He probably failed, but Caesar, saying his wife must be above suspicion, divorced her anyway.)

  44. “Lord Lundy was not debarred by rank from being Prime Minister”

    No, no. It would have been quite usual for him to lead a government from the Lords. But I always took the poem to mean that he had been sent to govern NSW in order to deliberately scupper his political career.

  45. Winston Churchill and his son Randolph did not get on well.

    Toward the end of his life, Randolph underwent surgery for a suspected cancer, but the tumor was found to be benign. Evelyn Waugh supposedly said “That’s typical of modern doctors. They find the only part of Randolph that wasn’t malignant, and they take it out.”

  46. David Eddyshaw says:

    I always took the poem to mean that he had been sent to govern NSW in order to deliberately scupper his political career.

    You may well be correct. Having been familiar with Belloc from very early childhood, I tend to miss nuances; I recall the shock to this day of realising as an adult that Miss Charming’s decision to leave John Vavassour de Quentin Jones’ uncle where she did for his sleep might perhaps not have been wholly disinterested.

  47. The end of the longish poem (“About John, Who lost a Fortune by Throwing Stones”), to provide context:

    At last his sole idea of fun
    Was sitting snoozling in the sun.

    So once, when he would take the air,
    They wheeled him in his Patent Chair

    (By “They” I mean his Nurse, who came
    From Dorchester upon the Thame :
    Miss Charming was the Nurse’s name).

    To where beside a little wood
    A long abandoned green-house stood,

    And there he sank into a doze
    Of senile and inept repose.

    But not for long his drowsy ease !
    A stone came whizzing through the trees,

    And caught him smartly in the eye.
    He woke with an appalling cry,

    And shrieked in agonizing tones :
    “Oh ! Lord ! Whoever’s throwing stones !”

    Miss Charming, who was standing near,
    Said : “That was Master John, I fear !”

    “Go, get my Ink-pot and my Quill,
    My Blotter and my Famous Will.”

    Miss Charming flew as though on wings
    To fetch these necessary things,

    And Uncle William ran his pen
    Through “well-beloved John,” and then

    Proceeded, in the place of same,
    To substitute Miss Charming’s name :

    Who now resides in Portman Square
    And is accepted everywhere.

  48. Note that the village is called Dorchester-upon-Thames. It is, however, very close to the confluence of the Thames and the Thame: technically, above the confluence the Thames is called the Isis, though WP says this name is now current only in the city of Oxford.. It is not to be confused with the much larger Dorchester, the county town of Dorset, which is on the Frome.

Speak Your Mind

*