Albatross and Alcatraz Island
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,
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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