What is the English term for when someone thinks they are doing something nice for you but it ends up making things worse. EX: Someone buys you an elephant -- nice gesture and cool! But now you have to take care of it, and it becomes a burden on you.


6 Answers 6


In fact, the English expression for a burdensome gift is literally white elephant:

a thing that is useless and no longer needed, although it may have cost a lot of money [OALD]

So-called white elephants, or albino elephants, are found in many parts of South and Southeast Asia. In Buddhist countries they may be venerated as Queen Maya, mother of the Buddha, was said to have been visited in a dream by a white elephant holding a white lotus flower, and Siddharth Gautama entered his mother's womb in the form a white elephant. The white elephant is also associated with traits like mental strength and purity.

It became a royal symbol in Siam (Thailand); the king continues to keep white elephants. The story emerged that if a courtier displeased him, the king would make him a gift of a white elephant. The courtier could hardly decline a royal gift, and could hardly afford not to maintain a sacred animal, and could not put it to productive use, and so would be ruined by the cost of upkeep.

The earliest example of its use is from a 1721 essay in London Journal:

In short, Honour and Victory are generally no more than white Elephants; and for white Elephants the most destructive Wars have been often made.

A 2011 paper by Ross Bullen entitled “This Alarming Generosity”: White Elephants and the Logic of the Gift, in American Literature, covers the popularization of the term in the mid-19th century, presents an alternative account, that the story is a piece of orientalism and the white elephant rose as a literary trope.

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    No it isn't. That is failed, expensive project, usually infrastructure and often accompanied by corruption and cronyism.
    – aaa90210
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 3:59
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    @aaa90210 Please cite literally any usage of "white elephant" in that context. Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 4:26
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    @aaa90210: You're correct that "white elephant" is currently used for failed projects. Following the etymological origins, the story of the king who gives white elephants, "white elephant" fits the OP's "gift that turns out to be a burden" to a tee. And it fits with a failed project for the same reason: You initially thought the project was going to benefit you, but after you're committed you realize that it's going to cost you.
    – Flater
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 7:55
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    Currant usage I have heard and used is in relation to a white elephant party, where attendees are to bring a gift. These gifts are generally low cost and chosen for comedic or mortifying effect, as well as a general uselessness. This usage is directly descended from the gifting of White Elephants. whiteelephantrules.com Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 15:03
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    The divergence from the original meaning described here, to the definition given by @aaa90210 appears to be British. American English would use "boondoggle" instead.
    – erickson
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 20:00

Poisoned Chalice

This is perhaps darker than the question envisages, but I add it for its literary pedigree*. The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus explains it as:

“Something that seems very good when it is first received, but in fact does great harm to the person who receives it”


*According to Oxford Reference:

An assignment, award, or honour which is likely to prove a disadvantage or source of problems to the recipient; the phrase is found originally in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606), in a speech in which Macbeth flinches from the prospective murder of Duncan.

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    Hate to downvote this, but the question is clearly about a situation where the donor "thinks they are doing something nice for you". A poison chalice is administered with intent. Commented Sep 23, 2017 at 8:49
  • @DominicCronin — Not necessarily. It can just be 'there' for the taking rather than administered, although in that case I agree it's not a gift, and one does talk about accepting a poison chalice. However the modern meaning of white elephant doesn't imply cost, just uselessness. It's not always possible to find an exact fit.
    – David
    Commented Sep 23, 2017 at 9:00
  • People don't just leave poisoned chalices lying around. Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 10:39
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    @DominicCronin — No, but you could regard a high political office as something that is 'there' to be grasped if others are hesitant, but may turn out to be a poisoned challice. btw No hard feelings about the downvote, especially as you explained why.
    – David
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 21:45

"White elephant" refers to a gift that's a burden, but the origins came from a situation where the burden was intentional. Albatross, money pit, and millstone all refer to burdens, but not specifically gifts.

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    Hello, Accumulation. This is a comment on another answer, not a separate answer. Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 15:03
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    @edwinashworth I don't think it's a comment. One answer mentions white elephant as well, but this answer provides more examples, and doesn't directly reference the other answer. It is very short though, and could stand to be expanded
    – user251721
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 15:18

a gift that keeps on giving

An ironic expression that indicates the "gift" has some ongoing and undesired consequences.

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    "Stop little cooking pot, stop!" :)
    – Wossname
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 10:18
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    Worth pointing out that this is sometimes used without the sarcasm too, so might not work too well in written contexts.
    – Muzer
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 10:26
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    I've actually never heard a real life use of the phrase that was sarcastic. I HAVE read passeges that seem to imply sarcasm, but as muzer said, it was a bit hard to tell.
    – user251721
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 15:16
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    Strange, I have never seen it used not sarcastic.
    – Polygnome
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 15:38
  • @Muzer It was even trademarked in 1927 by the Victor Talking Machine Company for phonographs. Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 18:17

Perhaps a stretch, but I offer Pandora's Box:

a source of extensive but unforeseen troubles or problems


Zonk was popularized by the U.S. television game show Let's Make a Deal. From the Wikipedia article:

The [show's] format ... [traders] make deals with the host. In most cases, a trader will be offered something of value and given a choice of whether to keep it or exchange it for a different item. The program's defining game mechanism is that the other item is hidden from the trader until that choice is made. The trader thus does not know if he or she is getting something of greater value or a prize that is referred to as a "zonk," an item purposely chosen to be of little or no value to the trader.

Emphasis is mine. Any connoisseur of U.S. television game shows will know this.

Alas, upon consulting with Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com, zonk does not appear with this meaning. Oddly, both dictionaries define it only as a verb. ... Didn't they ever watch television?

  • The asker specifies the giver must believe they're giving a valuable gift, and that its true lack of value or harmfulness is only apparent to the one receiving it. Even if a "zonk" has a chance of being valuable, it doesn't fit the specific need in the question. In fact if you were to describe someone's worthless gift as a "zonk" you'd be implying that they knew it was worthless when they gave it.
    – talrnu
    Commented Sep 23, 2017 at 23:01
  • @talrnu: One aspect I didn't mention is that sometimes the gifts which are meant to be worthless or a burden are actually welcome. Like the period of time which the zonk door had a live llama behind it. Some contestants had farms and welcomed receiving this animal.
    – wallyk
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 1:23
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    Interestingly, this answer on a related question elaborates that the intent was never for the contestant to actually take the zonk home (though it was their legal right to), the few times it actually happened costing the show a small fortune.
    – talrnu
    Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 1:18

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