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White elephant stall

Investigating the origins of English idioms with Mensa member Stephen Colbourn 

 

This article was first published in the November/December 2023 issue of IQ, the exclusive magazine for Mensa members. Find out more about becoming a Mensa member here.  

The legend of the Siamese white elephant came from sailors in Asia. A white elephant is an expensive and useless gift that the recipient wants to regift rather than throw away. Indeed, the King of Siam was said to give rare albino elephants to couriers who he was unhappy with – he knew they could not refuse and would then be ruined by the upkeep costs. 

Thus, a white elephant stall is a polite term for a second-hand or used-goods table at a charity bazaar. It sells donated goods for non-profit causes, such as the local church or a village community project. The people who organise these sales are volunteers who collect and sort ‘jumble’ as well as help on the stall. 

Ask yourself – what do you throw away if and when you declutter your premises? The most likely items are surplus clothes, old toys and used books. After all, you might say, someone may be glad of them. The phrase ‘jumble sale’ arose in the late 19th century and put a gloss on what is a form of refuse disposal. One person’s trash may be another person’s treasure. Put French dressing on it and bric-à-brac sounds much nicer than junk. 

The practice of selling off surplus or unwanted goods is centuries old. An example might be “Clearance Sale – Everything must go!” Storage space costs money, after all. ‘Rummage sale’ may be an old-fashioned expression for jumble sale, but the phrase has a history. Originally rummage referred to the stowage of goods on a cargo ship. The French verb arrumer meant to arrange cargo in a ship’s hold. By the 1620s, the verb rummage also took on the meaning of search – especially for contraband goods. The search could be rough. 

By the 1700s, rummage as a noun referred to goods that no one claimed or paid for in a port. It piled up and the ports needed to clear their sheds of worthless ‘lumber’. Solution – sell it off to junk and scrap dealers who could resell it for a small profit. These dealers or resellers carted it away on the cheap for ready cash – no questions asked.

This so-called rummage sale may have been frowned upon by the port authorities but overlooked in practice. It was a sale of convenience. The goods might end up on a market stall ‘good as new’, or appear in a questionable ‘flea market’ (from the French: marché aux puces). Stolen items are easily mixed in with rummage.

You won’t get round to the back of an Amazon warehouse, but a great deal of rummage selling goes on there. What to do with all the returned and damaged items? Sell them, of course, to rummagers. However, like the whitewash of white elephants, Amazon rummagers are air-brushed as ‘liquidators’. 

White elephant stall

Investigating the origins of English idioms with Mensa member Stephen Colbourn 

 

This article was first published in the November/December 2023 issue of IQ, the exclusive magazine for Mensa members. Find out more about becoming a Mensa member here.  

The legend of the Siamese white elephant came from sailors in Asia. A white elephant is an expensive and useless gift that the recipient wants to regift rather than throw away. Indeed, the King of Siam was said to give rare albino elephants to couriers who he was unhappy with – he knew they could not refuse and would then be ruined by the upkeep costs. 

Thus, a white elephant stall is a polite term for a second-hand or used-goods table at a charity bazaar. It sells donated goods for non-profit causes, such as the local church or a village community project. The people who organise these sales are volunteers who collect and sort ‘jumble’ as well as help on the stall. 

Ask yourself – what do you throw away if and when you declutter your premises? The most likely items are surplus clothes, old toys and used books. After all, you might say, someone may be glad of them. The phrase ‘jumble sale’ arose in the late 19th century and put a gloss on what is a form of refuse disposal. One person’s trash may be another person’s treasure. Put French dressing on it and bric-à-brac sounds much nicer than junk. 

The practice of selling off surplus or unwanted goods is centuries old. An example might be “Clearance Sale – Everything must go!” Storage space costs money, after all. ‘Rummage sale’ may be an old-fashioned expression for jumble sale, but the phrase has a history. Originally rummage referred to the stowage of goods on a cargo ship. The French verb arrumer meant to arrange cargo in a ship’s hold. By the 1620s, the verb rummage also took on the meaning of search – especially for contraband goods. The search could be rough. 

By the 1700s, rummage as a noun referred to goods that no one claimed or paid for in a port. It piled up and the ports needed to clear their sheds of worthless ‘lumber’. Solution – sell it off to junk and scrap dealers who could resell it for a small profit. These dealers or resellers carted it away on the cheap for ready cash – no questions asked.

This so-called rummage sale may have been frowned upon by the port authorities but overlooked in practice. It was a sale of convenience. The goods might end up on a market stall ‘good as new’, or appear in a questionable ‘flea market’ (from the French: marché aux puces). Stolen items are easily mixed in with rummage.

You won’t get round to the back of an Amazon warehouse, but a great deal of rummage selling goes on there. What to do with all the returned and damaged items? Sell them, of course, to rummagers. However, like the whitewash of white elephants, Amazon rummagers are air-brushed as ‘liquidators’. 

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