What's the Origin of White Elephant Parties?

tommaso79/iStock via Getty Images
tommaso79/iStock via Getty Images

In New England, it’s often called a "Yankee Swap." In the South, it’s "Dirty Santa." But across most of North America, the party game where participants trade (and steal) presents is known as a white elephant gift exchange.

The term white elephant has been used since at least the 1800s to refer to a less-than-desirable gift. “According to legend, the tradition of white elephant gifts began long ago when the King of Siam—now Thailand—gave an actual white elephant to anyone he disliked,” Evan Mendelsohn, co-founder of holiday apparel company Tipsy Elves, tells Mental Floss. “These rare elephants were quite expensive to care for. The white elephant was also a respected symbol in Thai and Buddhist cultures, so you couldn’t get away with regifting it or putting it to work.”

According to an 1873 article from The New York Times, the white elephant—impossible to get rid of, but too expensive to maintain—would be an enormous financial burden, impoverishing the recipient.

But the legend has no basis in fact, writes Ross Bullen, a professor of liberal arts at Toronto’s OCAD University [PDF]. He quotes the Thai historian Rita Ringis: “[N]o Siamese monarch ever considered white elephants ‘burdensome’ nor gave them away." In Buddhist tradition, white elephants were a sign of status and good fortune.

The notion of “swap parties” started picking up steam around 1901, when Kentucky’s Hartford Herald published an article describing a gift exchange with “four or five little bundles, wrapped so that no one else can suspect the contents.” Early descriptions of swap parties recommended that players bring the most absurd gifts possible, finishing the game by handing out prizes for “best bargain” and “worst bargain” (the recipient of the worst gift would be required to tell a story, sing a song, or otherwise entertain the group).

The term white elephant party first appeared in a joke published in 1907 in Nebraska's The Columbus Journal, according to blogger Peter Jensen Brown. “A shocking thing happened in one of our nearby towns,” the joke begins. “One of the popular society women announced a ‘white elephant party.’ Every guest was to bring something she could not find any use for and yet too good to throw away ... Nine out of the 11 women invited brought their husbands.”

The white elephant joke was later published in newspapers all across the United States—the 1907 equivalent of going viral. In 1908, society pages in newspapers started publishing notices for actual white elephant parties, where attendees were encouraged to make gifts of objects they wanted to get rid of.

White elephant gift exchanges have remained relatively unchanged since then, although rules differ from place to place. Want to host your own white elephant party? Find the rules at the official white elephant website, and check out our list of fun gift ideas.

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Has An Element Ever Been Removed From the Periodic Table?

lucadp/iStock via Getty Images
lucadp/iStock via Getty Images

Barry Gehm:

Yes, didymium, or Di. It was discovered by Carl Mosander in 1841, and he named it didymium from the Greek word didymos, meaning twin, because it was almost identical to lanthanum in its properties. In 1879, a French chemist showed that Mosander’s didymium contained samarium as well as an unknown element. In 1885, Carl von Weisbach showed that the unknown element was actually two elements, which he isolated and named praseodidymium and neodidymium (although the di syllable was soon dropped). Ironically, the twin turned out to be twins.

The term didymium filter is still used to refer to welding glasses colored with a mixture of neodymium and praseodymium oxides.

One might cite as other examples various claims to have created/discovered synthetic elements. Probably the best example of this would be masurium (element 43), which a team of German chemists claimed to have discovered in columbium (now known as niobium) ore in 1925. The claim was controversial and other workers could not replicate it, but some literature from the period does list it among the elements.

In 1936, Emilio Segrè and Carlo Perrier isolated element 43 from molybdenum foil that had been used in a cyclotron; they named it technetium. Even the longest-lived isotopes of technetium have a short half-life by geological standards (millions of years) and it has only ever been found naturally in minute traces as a product of spontaneous uranium fission. For this reason, the original claim of discovery (as masurium) is almost universally regarded as erroneous.

As far as I know, in none of these cases with synthetic elements has anyone actually produced a quantity of the element that one could see and weigh that later turned out not to be an element, in contrast to the case with didymium. (In the case of masurium, for instance, the only evidence of its existence was a faint x-ray signal at a specific wavelength.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Can You Ever Truly Lose Your Accent?

DGLimages, iStock via Getty Images
DGLimages, iStock via Getty Images

You may be able to pull off a Spanish accent when showing off your Antonio Banderas impression, but truly losing your native accent and replacing it with a new one is a lot harder to do. The way you speak now will likely stick with you for life.

According to Smithsonian, our accent develops as early as 6 months old—accents being the pronunciation conventions of a language shaped by factors like region, culture, and class. When a baby is learning the words for nap and dad and play, they're also learning how to pronounce the sounds in those words from the people around them. Newborn brains are wired to recognize and learn languages just from being exposed to them. By the time babies start talking, they know the "right" pronunciations to use for their native language or languages.

As you get older, your innate understanding of foreign accents and languages gets weaker. If you're an English speaker raised in Boston, you may think that the way someone from Dallas speaks English sounds "wrong" without being able to articulate what it is that makes them sound different. This is why pulling off a convincing foreign accent can be so difficult, even if you've heard it many times before.

Around age 18, your ability to learn a second language takes a steep nosedive. The same may be true with your ability to speak in a new accent. If you immerse yourself in a foreign environment for long enough, you may pick up some ticks of the local accent, but totally adopting a non-native accent without making a conscious effort to maintain it is unlikely as an adult.

There is one exception to this rule, and that's Foreign Accent Syndrome. Following a head injury or stroke, some people have reported suddenly speaking in accents they didn't grow up using. The syndrome is incredibly rare, with only 100 people around the world having been diagnosed with it, and medical experts aren't sure why brain injuries cause it. But while patients may be pronouncing their words differently, they aren't exactly using foreign accents in the way most people think of them; the culprit may be subtle changes to muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx that change the way patients pronounce certain vowels.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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