Good Question: Where did the term ‘white elephant’ come from?

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This week, all of us at attended a company Christmas party, where we exchanged silly, inexpensive gifts with each other called white elephant gifts.

Bragging rights were awarded to the best white elephant gift giver.

That got us wondering why it is called a white elephant gift.

That is our Good Question for this week.

The best answer I’ve seen to this question comes from Wisconsin radio station WTMJ.

“The name originates from an actual white elephant,” Merriam-Webster’s Emily Brewster tells WTMJ. “The white elephant was an object of veneration, and required a lot of care and upkeep – but could not be used as a beast of burden.”

In other words, a white elephant was deemed beautiful but was high maintenance and impractical, and therefore, undesirable.

According to legend, ancient kings would give white elephants to people they wanted to ruin.

“Keeping a white elephant was a very expensive undertaking, since the owner had to provide the elephant with special food and provide access for people who wanted to worship it,” one report states.

The term “white elephant,” according to Brewster, then evolved into a property requiring a lot of care and expense. That led to its meaning referring to an object that is not of value.

“It had little value to the owner, but may have had value to (the recipient). Beyond that, it referred to something of little or no value,” Brewster said in the same interview.

Today, the idea of a white elephant gift exchange seems to be a social ice-breaker. The goal is to deliberately purchase the most outrageous gift one can find and exchange it with someone. The gift that receives the most laughs wins.

Case in point:

Our own Robert Patten received this beautifully decorated, hand-wrapped gift from our reporter Myles Primm. The look on his face can only be surpassed by the gift itself…

Followed by Myles’ tender response,

“Very few people in the world have one of these.”

It is important to note Myles and Robert attended this event together. Robert now has two of these.