Albatross and Alcatraz Island

By Maeve Maddox

Even speakers who have had the misfortune of never studying Coleridge’s long poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) are acquainted with the figurative meaning of the word albatross: “A source or mark of misfortune, guilt, etc., from which one cannot (easily) be free; a burden or encumbrance.”

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An albatross is a large seabird. In sailor lore, the albatross is considered to be lucky. In Coleridge’s poem, a thoughtless sailor shoots an albatross with his crossbow. The dead bird falls onto the deck. Shortly afterwards, the ship is becalmed and the crew believe that their predicament has been caused by the killing of the albatross. To distance themselves from the act, they tie the dead bird around the neck of the man who killed it:

Ah! well-a-day! what evil looks 

Had I from old and young!

Instead of the cross,
the Albatross 

About my neck was hung.”

The word albatross came into English in the 16th century as “alcatras,” from Spanish and Portuguese words meaning “pelican”: alcatraz. The Spanish word probably came from Arabic al-qatras, “sea eagle.”

Since English already had the word pelican, the new borrowing came to be applied to different white birds. Eventually the spelling changed to albatross, influenced by Latin albus, “white.”

The word pelican can be found in Old English, although the word didn’t take on the meaning of a sea bird until Middle English. Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay got its name from the pelicans that once roosted there. A Spaniard, Manuel de Ayala, charted San Francisco Bay in 1775. He named the island La Isla de los Alcatraces, “The Island of the Pelicans.”

The plural of albatross is albatrosses (ugh) or albatross.

In golf, an “albatross” is a score of three under par on a hole, or a hole played in three under par

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5 Responses to “Albatross and Alcatraz Island”

  • AmaT

    Very interesting ~ Thank you!

  • Rod

    In Spanish Albatros is a bird similar to Pelican but not the same pelicano is the word in Spanish and Alcatraz is a flower “arum”

  • BA

    I read an article by eNature only yesterday which explained a probable correction to the conventional wisdom about the source of the name for “The Rock”.

    “Most reference sources attribute the name “Alcatraz” to the Spanish word for “pelican,” which is “alcarez.” And while pelicans frequently visit the bay, it’s doubtful they ever nested on Alcatraz. A look at the island today, particularly the west side, which is often completely covered with nesting cormorants, may reveal the true source of the name. We know that Don Juan Manual Ayala named the rock for the birds he saw there, but maybe he called it “alcatraceo,” the Spanish word for “cormorant.””
    http://enature.com/articles/detail.asp?storyID=454

  • Maeve

    @BA
    Thanks for the footnote.
    Makes sense.

  • Cecily

    I read this a couple of days before going to California on holiday. Because of this post, I was on the look-out for pelicans on the SF to Santa Barbara coast and saw many (and yet more on Alcatraz). An unexpected benefit of learning etymology!

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