I always thought a white elephant was any old piece of junk that you wanted to get rid of. But Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day offers a more interesting definition (“a property requiring much care and expense and yielding little profit”) along with this fascinating background story:
The real "white elephant" (the kind with a trunk) is a pale pachyderm that has long been an object of veneration in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar. Too revered to be a beast of burden, the white elephant earned a reputation as a burdensome beast, one that required constant care and feeding but never brought a single cent (or paisa or satang or pya) to its owner. One story has it that the kings of Siam (the old name for Thailand) gave white elephants as gifts to those they wished to ruin, hoping that the cost of maintaining the voracious but sacred mammal would drive its new owner to the poorhouse.Seems to me there are more than a few white elephants in the federal bureaucracy.