Saturday, February 18, 2006


    'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
    From the fiends that plague thee thus!--
    Why look'st thou so?'--With my cross-bow
    I shot the Albatross.

    The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ( (1798))

A noun pronounced 'al-b&-"tros, -"träs. Albatross first appeared on the horizon of humanity in 1564. It is an Arabic carryover from al-ghattas meaning "the white-tailed sea eagle." Not from alba Latin for "white".
    Part of the problem with Spanish etymology is that for centuries after the 15th-century Reconquest of Iberia -- when the Moors and Jews were driven out by Catholics -- Spaniards were in total denial of their Arabic past, which had lasted seven centuries. Until the 1960s no history of Spain by a Spanish author even acknowledged this long and distinguished heritage. It was common for words with Arabic derivations to be painted over with Latinate meanings so that they would seem "pure Iberian," whatever that means.
Some English researchers think that the origin may be ultimately Greek kados meaning jar into Arabic al qadus a bucket. They relate that behind the relation of the two ideas that come from an irrigation bucket, which may have looked like a pelican's beak.

The Spanish and Portuguese word alcatraz describing "the place of pelicans" was used for the infamous island prison off the coast of San Francisco. "Alcatras" had been used to express an assortment of sea birds until the late 17th century, when it became particular to an individual bird. Related to the petrel, this bird is a member of the largest seabirds from the Diomedeidae family, a group of large web-footed seabirds that have long slender wings. Excellent gliders albatross can soar for hours over the open sea. Their diet consists chiefly of squids and cuttlefish. Found primarily in southern oceans, it has a stout hooked bill; usually a white or brown plumage, frequently with darker markings on the back, wings, or tail. They come ashore only to breed laying single eggs and possess wingspans ranging from six to twelve feet, the Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans, has the largest wingspan of any bird. The albatross is nicknamed goony bird for it awkward attempts of taking off from dry land because of their outsized wingspans.

In folklore the word has become a proverbial expression. Albatross became the Spanish word for pelican. Superstitious beliefs regarded it as bad luck to kill one of these birds. From this belief the sea bird came to symbolize persistent difficulty or burden.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem extends this metaphor of an albatross when a ship's crew hung a dead albatross around the Ancient Mariner's neck as penance. The sailors considered the albatross a good omen; most likely a sign that they were approaching land and believed that killing this bird brought bad luck. In the poem, when the ship is becalmed near the equator and runs out of water the crew blames "The Mariner" for killing the large white seabird making wear it around his neck. This turned out to be a terrible decision. Nothing but ill fortune befalls the ship and ultimately everyone perishes except The Mariner wearing the bird who prays for deliverance. A skeleton ship approaches, on which Death and Life-in-Death are playing dice, and when it vanishes the entire crew dies except the mariner. Suddenly, watching the beauty of the water snakes in the moonlight, he blesses them--and the albatross falls from his neck. He is saved, but has to tell his tale for the rest of his life.

D.H. Lawrence alludes to this event and the Mariner in his1923 poem Snake.

    And I thought of the albatross,
    And I wished he would come back, my snake.
    For he seemed to me again like a king,
    Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
    Now due to be crowned again.
    And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
    Of life.
    And I have something to expiate:
    A pettiness.
You might be interested to learn that in 1719, it was Captain George Shelvocke's voyage to the Pacific Coast who is the sailor Hatley, of this expedition and was the ancient mariner who shot the albatross in Coleridge's famous poem. In The Road to Xanadu (1927), J. L. Lowes traces the foundation of Coleridge's story and imagery. The poem was ridiculed when it first came out, but has since come to be regarded as one of the great poems of Romanticism. R. P. Warren re-interprets the symbolism of the poem, based on an opposition between Sun and Moon, in Selected Essays (1964).

The Western world has since borrowed Coleridge's extended metaphor as an idiom as in I have an albatross around my neck. Today it has come to mean something that greatly hinders accomplishment. Encumbrance, inconvenience, handicap and burden would be good synonyms. Equivocal phrases are millstone around one's neck, anchor around one's neck, have a cross to bear, and have a monkey on one's back.


English Etymologies
Feb 19 2000.

Fact archive for June 2002
Accessed June 2002.

Take Our Word For It
Accessed Feb 19 2000.

Accessed Feb 19 2000.