'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:

Fact archive for June 2002:
homepage.tinet.ie/~brianfleury/ archives/arcfctjun2002.htm

Take Our Word For It:


An albatross in golf is getting 3 under par on a par 5 hole (and is sometimes credited for getting a hole in one on a par 4). This is extremely rare; more so than a hole-in-one (these happen occasionally on a par 3). An albatross is also oftentimes referred to as a double eagle.

It is by far the rarest shot in golf.

Right angle BNC.

The mechs were doing 9-13 hour torque checks on the driveshafts following an FCF, we had pulled two for high time during the phase. Essentially goes on here is that we track the amount of time that a part is on the aircraft during flight, when it reaches a certain number of hours then we pull the thing off and replace that particular component. Usually this is done in conjunction with phase maintenance and when three or four other parts are due. Typically, these parts are dynamic components such as the driveshafts that make the tail rotor go round, the main, intermediate and tail gearboxes, the spindles and elastomeric bearings that hold the main rotor blades in place. After a component is replaced, there are a slew of small things that have to be done in order to ensure that it remains in a condition resembling (almost exactly,) what it looked like and was torqued to when installed. Hence the 9-13 hour torque checks on the #3 and #4 driveshafts following what was to be the second to last flight of the day.

Part Number (P/N): M39012/20-0503. Manufacturer's Part Number (MFR P/N): 20-01-9313

Ziggy and Jesus are bickering again about the way to torque the joint between the #3 driveshaft, flex pack and the viscous damper connecting it to the #2 driveshaft where it comes out from underneath the turtleback. The flex packs are basically ten thin metal rings about an inch wide with a cut out center designed to suck up jolt of torque transmitted to the driveshafts when the pilots release the rotor brake during startup. On the other hand the viscous dampers are fluid filled bearings that the driveshafts ride in that prevent the buildup of harmonic resonance in the drive train components during flight, the flex packs help with this a bit as well. The #2 driveshaft runs from the connection on the back end of the oil cooler, past the APU on the left and the ECS water/particle separator and air cycle machine on the left. Passing just below and to the right of the two bottles of compressed Halon used for the SH-60B's fire extinguishing system, the #2 driveshaft also runs directly beneath the ELT antenna.

Manufacturer Code (MFR/CAGE): 81836. K-Jack Industries.

Jesus is now yelling at Ziggy quite loudly about sufficient advantage to force the torque wrench over on the #3 connections. As usual Ziggy is standing somewhat mute while the yelling goes on, meaning he says little save for the occasional comment on the sufficient advantage needed to stick the torque wrench up Jesus' ass. Here Jesus is as on many an occasion, is incorrect in this situation and resorting to bullshitting in order to prove that he is right. This is why Mat is called Jesus, because he knows literally everything (or thinks he does,) is never wrong (in his opinion,) and is a generally swell guy (again in his opinion.) This is not doing anything for our Chief's blood pressure who is alternating between staring in abject horror at the sun setting on the other side of Mount Fuji and the argument unfolding near the side of the aircraft. This bird will require one last flight to complete the FCF and we'll be up to hop on the boat on Monday. By the way, we cannot FCF once the sun has set, so the onus is on Ziggy and Jesus to finish the torque checks with enough time remaining for one last flight. The torque wrench again clicks following Ziggy applying it in a manner inconsistent with Jesus' pandering rhetoric, a smug smile and a glance into the red shadows where the driveshaft comes from beneath the cowling follows.

There is a line in the paint on the #2 driveshaft.

A thin band of exposed metal encircling the entire shaft, the paint gone and laying in small hair-like ribbons in the corners of the cowling. Upon closer examination it is revealed that there is a slight v-shape carved into the precision spun aluminum on one of the most fragile and critical portions of the transmission system. There is something there that would cause this damage, hanging in the shadows of the flightline on NAF Atsugi at dusk.

The ELT connector. Right angle BNC. Part Number (P/N): M39012/20-0503 Manufacturer's Part Number (MFR P/N): 20-01-9313, Manufacturer Code (MFR/CAGE): 81836. K-Jack Industries, FEDLOG listed Price $35.18 (USD.)

Cold. Suddenly very cold in the muggy evening air.

Ed and I had removed the antenna for the phase, that was two days ago. It stayed off overnight. One of the 51 guys was supposed to have looked at it for me because I was busy with that THP dupe when Ed finished. Shit. This isn't happening. Panic, shock, disbelief. Inexorable input of available information and realization of undeniable truth. Impact.

No, no, no. I didn't miss that. There's no fucking way I missed something that obvious, that simple.

The damage to the shaft turned out to be within tolerable limits, so much that it disappeared when covered with a light layer of gull gray primer. The connector was removed. I did this personally and then carefully wrapped the loose coaxial cable into the stringer supporting the turtleback. Next came spot tying the loose end and slack down such that anything short of a hand grenade or a pair of pliers was not going affect the position or proximity of the rigid center conductor to the driveshaft below.

Holy sweet fucking merciful jesus the bird flew. The bird flew and it flew with that connector like that and I fucking missed it. It could have gone through the driveshaft and…shit.

Unrecoverable flight regime due to total loss of tail rotor authority is what the manual says in sterile bold print.

It is dark on the line here in San Diego a year and some months later. The birds are all silent, plugged tight, waiting for Sunday and the inevitable round of inspections that follow a weekend. Hanging from the desk lamp on the corner of my desk is the chain holding a single dog tag wrapped in a half inch by ten inches of olive drab duct tape, a plastic whistle of course sans cork ball. (Cork swells in water, a bad thing if swimming in it and requiring a whistle to attract attention.) The chain is jacketed in green nylon 550 parachute cord with the center pulled out, thus preventing the undesired removal of chest and other short hairs at the back of the neck by the chain itself.

Despite damage to the driveshaft being minimal, the connector faired very poorly. Several major abrasions, serious removal of material from the outside of the connector and a total mutilation of the locking ring necessitated the immediate removal of the part. We ordered another an hour later, and despite my protests about the requirements indicating my qualifications as Collateral Duty Inspector/Quality Assurance Representative for 210 (Avionics) needing to be placed under immediate suspension, they were not. Chief wasn't having any of this that day. I didn't kill the bird, although I came damn close.

Battered and now a mottled grayish purple from light surface corrosion the ELT connector, the Albatross as I have come to regard it, hangs around my neck to this day.

The goblet clattered to the floor and rolled towards the starboard wall.

The table skidded after it, as did any men still sitting on their chairs amidst the sudden motion. For a moment, I froze. The storm was predicted to be mild, the waves no taller than 5 feet and posing no threat to our drifter. The sudden lurch and sway of the boat proved otherwise. The messdeck floor tilted and swayed nauseatingly, and my tired eyes seemed to roll in their sockets. Everyone grabbed to whatever they could get ahold of that was heavy enough to remain stationary, or, if they were lucky, one of the few beams that held up the ceiling. Water had already begun to seep through the deck, dripping onto our heads and into our eyes as we stared up at it in shock, and in the more seasoned crew member's case, in fear. They had heard tales of times like these. Of ships lost at sea, taken by the waves and stifled in the unforgiving depths, unable to send out even a mayday signal before they were blotted out like specks of dust. They just never thought it would happen to them.

I knew this couldn't happen. Because our signals officer knew what he was doing. His name was Vitya, and he had served on military vessels for the Union when he was in his prime. In fact, he seems to have never left his prime, when you talk to him. He would have sent out the mayday call 3 minutes ago. Right when the first huge wave crashed onto the deck.

The men looked into each other's eyes and saw terror. Most of them were green. Herring season had just started, and the first captain had hired the majority of the crew straight off the docks. I had been hired off the docks, too, but I can't say I was as green as the others. My father had owned a salmon ship, and I would occasionally join him in my youth on his trips along Alaska and the Canadian west coast. I knew the ocean, not as well as some of the weathered seamen here, but I could tell something was off about this. The ocean is capricious, and like a lover scorned she will slap at you with stinging palms if you underestimate her. But never without reason, and never with this kind of intent. No, there is something wrong here.

I waited for a fleeting moment of stability, and took my chance, men yelling after me as I darted for the hatch. Any minute now, there would be a mad scramble, sailors crawling over each other and getting tossed around like beans in a strainer by the brutal waves. Any minute now, the messhall and any other space below deck would begin to fill up with water. The same water that churned outside. There is nowhere left to go but up, at least for those who can make it there. I aspire to be one of them. I grabbed the hatch and pushed with all my might, letting water flow down through the opening.

Where was the captain? Either in the bridge, or still in his cabin, blissfully sleeping away as water drizzled through from under his door. The men would not wake him. They never did trust him much. Last season, I was not here on this boat, still focusing on my studies, but he was not captain here back then. According to the rumors, the old captain was found in his cabin, a sharpened quill stabbed right into where his Adam's apple would be. He was an odd one, but the oldest and most loyal crewmen spoke of him like a legend. The waves were his brothers. He had their backs through thick and thin, and brought his ship great success, him and his albatross. It pattered after him like a house-trained cat, and was almost a member of the crew. How he had managed to tame it, no one knew. But it seemed aged like he was, wise, like his advisor, assisting him in his duties. No one had seen it after the captain's death. The new captain was his brother, having obtained the ship by inheritance. He owned a business before, selling denim clothing at an inflated price, some say. Whatever made him take up sailing is beyond me.

I scrambled to get on deck, my hands fighting for purchase on the slippery wood. With a great heave, I hoisted myself up, only to be blown back by the incredible wind. The rain pounded down. The water flung me to the starboard side, throwing my body hard against the ledge. Thank God for that ledge. Maybe I should be praying.

As the ship tipped towards port, I grabbed onto the thin railing on the ledge, and held on with my life. My knuckles were white with strain, my hair plastered to my face, obscuring my vision, but I saw it. I saw the drop, 240 feet across the deck and into the frothy waves, that boiling darkness. It called to me. Like a man staring down off a cliff, I wanted to jump. I don't know why.

But I held on. Oh, did I ever.

I regretted. I regretted not staying below deck. Maybe slowly drowning, surrounded by a mob of scratching men, was better than this. I regretted not telling Laura I missed her, in one of my rare letters. I regretted not writing more letters. I regretted only wearing a sweater and a jacket, as I felt the cold seep into my muscles. I felt drained. The boat swayed back, righting itself for the moment. I lay on the slippery deck, and looked to the right, and found myself staring at the lifeboats.

Was it worth it? Was it worth climbing down the ladder of boats hanging off the side of the drifter? Was it worth making my way over and desperately trying to untie the boat with freezing fingers? Was it worth it, even if I was in the middle of nowhere, 46 nautical miles away from any kind of land, left to die of thirst alone in a pathetic lifeboat? If, by some miracle, I wasn't swallowed up by the salty waves first?

I decided it was.

The ship lurched again. Just my luck, I slid in the direction of the lifeboats, grabbing a mast as another wave came and lifted the ship up. It passed, and I swung around the mast like a trapeze artist thrown into the air, locking my arms around it in desperation. When it righted again, I began pusing my way up to the boats. As I was about to begin the perilous climb down, I took one more look towards the bridge, across the deck, searching for signs of life. For the captain, maybe. And perched on the hull, untouched by the waves or the wind or the rain, pristine and young, I saw it.

The albatross.

The captain goes down, with his ship.

Al"ba*tross (#), n. [Corrupt. fr. Pg. alcatraz cormorant, albatross, or Sp. alcatraz a pelican: cf. Pg. alcatruz, Sp. arcaduz, a bucket, fr. Ar. al-qadus the bucket, fr. Gr. ka`dos, a water vessel. So an Arabic term for pelican is water-carrier, as a bird carrying water in its pouch.] Zool.

A web-footed bird, of the genus Diomedea, of which there are several species. They are the largest of sea birds, capable of long-continued flight, and are often seen at great distances from the land. They are found chiefly in the southern hemisphere.


© Webster 1913.

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