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Albino elephants are rare, but you wouldn't know it from the proliferation of references to white elephants. A figurative white elephant is a possession or project that, whatever hopes may have accompanied its creation, proves a sinkhole for money and becomes a burden for its owner.

David Jeanes, president of the lobby group Transport 2000, said this month that the expansion of Toronto's Pearson International Airport may surpass what the market needs and will support. "We may find ... that Pearson ends up being a white elephant." A January article on the Hibernia oil fields off Newfoundland said, "Oil finally began to flow in 1997, but even then there were skeptics who believed the gigantic steel and concrete island in the ocean might prove to be a white elephant."

How could something as rare as an albino elephant prove of little value? The answer seems to lie in Siam, now Thailand. As the story goes, any white elephants found in the wild became the property of Siam's king, and could not be used for toil or be ridden by anyone except the king. The king, whether to honour or punish a courtier, might present him with one of the elephants. Reader Robert Findlay, recalling that story in a 2006 letter, wrote that "there seems to have been a very fine line between honouring and punishing." Since the elephant was a gift from the king, the recipients "could not give it away, and because it was sacred it couldn't be worked, so they were stuck with all the expenses and difficulties of caring for their white elephant." The sacred aspect had to do with the Buddha, whose mother was said to have dreamed of her son-to-be as a white elephant, whose many symbolic attributes include knowledge and prosperity.

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There appears to be no solid evidence that a real king of Siam pushed his courtiers into bankruptcy by unloading his white elephants on them, but there is no doubt the animals were special to the country's kings. The Oxford English Dictionary cites references from 1663 ("the white elephant whereon he [the king of Siam]was mounted") and 1841 (white elephants "are kept in the stables of the king, and treated with a kind of veneration"). The first figurative citation is in a letter by English novelist Geraldine Jewsbury published posthumously in 1892 and written in 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."

Of course, an elephant doesn't need to be white to be ruinously expensive. Wordsmith Robert Hendrickson writes that Charles I, who ruled England, Scotland and Ireland from 1625 until he had his head lopped off in 1649, was presented with a grey elephant by the king of Siam and was not at all happy with the cost of catering to the creature, particularly since Parliament was giving him a hard time about his expenses. Writer Charles Earle Funk said Charles's queen even had to postpone her yearly trip to Bath because the elephant was siphoning so much from the Royal treasury. (Elephants are good at siphoning things.) This tale may have melded with the Siamese tale in shaping the white elephant as we know it, and pay for it, today.

Making do with little dew

Anson McKim passes along an article on golf courses from Florida's Longboat Observer. "The toughest challenge for the golf industry this year," the piece says, "will be making due with a lot less water for irrigation." The writer probably meant making do, but in the circumstances, McKim suggests, he may have meant making dew.

And Russell Brown was amused by this line in an obituary of actor Roy Scheider: "After that, Mr. Scheider continued to be given plumb roles." Brown comments: "I take it, therefore, that he always played the straight man?"

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