Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Episode 205: Albatross Around Your Neck

This week Shauna and Dan explore the phrase, Albatross Around Your Neck. Shauna delves into the etymology of albatross with some pretty cool connections. Bonus: Cubism, Lisa Loeb glasses, and Dan talking to the FBI person who is listening in on the recordings. 

Copyright 2023 by The Readiness Corner, LLC - All Rights Reserved


Click to read the shownotes

 Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 205: Albatross Around Your Neck
Record Date: August 27, 2023
Air Date: August 30, 2023


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Dan Pugh

And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Student loan debt can be a barrier to other parts of life… a relentless companion that may even overshadow dreams. A failed project can become a team's burden, a whispered frustration that lingers and comes up during hushed conversations. Even clutter in a room or house turns into an ever-present challenge that keeps us from reclaiming the space for something more meaningful. These burdens are like an albatross around our necks. We cannot be free of them because they are a part of us.


This is used in any form of just the term Albatross and also in phrase form as an albatross around one’s neck.

According to Oxford English Dictionary, an albatross is
a very large oceanic bird related to the shearwaters, with long narrow wings. Albatrosses, some species of which have wingspans greater than 10 feet (3.3 m), are found mainly in the southern oceans, with three kinds in the North Pacific.
End Quote

The meaning as an allusion used today is summed up decently by Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

: something that causes persistent deep concern or anxiety
: something that greatly hinders accomplishment : encumbrance
End Quote

The first attestation I was able to find in print for a usage of Albatross that is not referring to a living creature is in the 1681 work by Nehemiah Grew, Botanist and Physician, titled:
Mus├Žum regalis societatis; or, A catalogue & description of the natural and artificial rarities belonging to the Royal Society and preserved at Gresham Colledge

The Head of the Man of War; called also Albitrosse.
End Quote

In this quote, the "Man of War" refers to a type of ship, specifically a warship that was heavily armed and used primarily for combat purposes. During the time when the quote was written in 1681, "Man of War" was a common term for a large and powerful ship designed for warfare, often used by navies for battles and sea dominance. The term "Albitrosse" seems to be an alternate name for this "Man of War," possibly derived from the term "albatross" or related to some specific aspect of the ship's design or function. The word does have a different spelling in this excerpt, A-l-b-i-t-r-o-s-s-e so it is also possible that the term was simply similar and not intended to have the same representation of the large diving bird.

Most historians give credit to literature as the origin for the term albatross in its figurative sense. Specifically, there is reference to the 1797 poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In this poem, an albatross is a large seabird that is initially considered a good omen by sailors. However, the mariner in the poem kills the albatross, bringing a curse upon the ship and its crew.

In this poem, the significant line reads,
Instead of the Cross the Albatross About my neck was hung.
End quote

The concept of the albatross being a burden or curse carried by someone due to a past mistake or action has become a metaphor in literature and everyday language.

It symbolizes a heavy and often ongoing psychological or emotional burden that someone has to bear, similar to how the mariner in the poem carries the guilt of killing the albatross.

This particular poem has had a lasting impact on English literature and language, it is also believed to have given rise to the idiomatic expression "an albatross around one's neck," which refers to a lasting burden or hindrance that affects someone's life or progress.

Before moving any further along into this, there is an important item we should note.
Albatross and Alcatraz Island by Maeve Maddox was published on the blog Daily Writing Tips in 2010.

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.”
End Quote

One commenter shared an additional thought which the author replied in thanks for the footnote and thought. I tried to find the article they were referring to but was unable to locate it. Here is their comment.

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.””
End quote

I found many references in the later 1700s and early 1800s to ships and birds using the term or name Albatross. Here is one that stood out as slightly different from the others. This is from the May 24, 1825 edition of the Phenix gazette out of Alexandria, now D.C. This was re-shared from the Nature Inquirer.

We learn that sometime in January last, off the coast of Brazil, Captain Brock, of the Columbus, (arrived at N. Bedford) spoke [of] a ship from Sagharbour, one of whose men had recently shot an albatross: attached to the bird's neck was a piece of leather containing information, that ship Thomas, of this port, had eight whales on the day previous. If there be any truth in this flying report, will not some ingenious lawyer contrive to bring an action for a deed so foul, as that of shooting this news carrier?
End Quote

The reason I wanted to share this one is that it was even included with that full length update. News carriers, be they humans or animals, did have some safety in that everyone wanted that service to continue. Still, this was an interesting item to reshare… it perhaps the type of animal that was attacked was also significant to them. I continued to find reports of people who noted interesting deliveries from Albatross birds and the supposed interesting part of the delivery was in fact the deliverer of the message.

In the February 05, 1872, edition of the Daily National Republican. Out of Washington City [ now D.C.], we find a snippet that references the Mariner poem.

He would be strong in Pennsylvania, because of his pig-iron fancies, and on the Pacific coast for personal reasons. But Mr. Greeley edits a partisan newspaper, and in that position he is like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner with the albatross around his neck. As a partisan he has been in a hundred fights, and has made enemies whose animosity slumbers, but who would rise to confront him in his canvass as suddenly as the followers of Rhoderick Dhu sprang from the heather and bracken when they heard their leader’s cry.
End Quote

Cheyenne transporter February 25, 1882, out of Darlington, Indian Territory shared the following tale.

Story of an Albatross.
The Sydney Mail of 26th November says: "One of the very funniest stories ever heard comes from the log of the ship Madstone. Down in the roaring forties a seaman fell overboard, and went down into the deep green gulf without the faintest possible hope of coming on board again. It is not an easy thing to find a man, even if he does keep afloat, when deep calls unto deep, and the big sea mountains skip like young lambs in those latitudes.
But as this man rose after the first header, right alongside he beheld an albatross, and around that albatross neck he folded an arm, and doubtless with the other hand made a sure grip of the wicked hooked bill, and with much flapping and floundering, and doubtless strange conversation between man and bird, he held on till the boat got down and lifted him in. What tale the albatross told to his fellows that evening is to us unknown, but if any records be kept in the albatross world, little doubt there will be found set down a record of a new marine monster more marvellous than the mightiest sea snake the most ancient mariner of the human race had beheld even in his dreams."
End Quote

In 1883, J. E. Collins referenced the Mariner poem and this excerpt appears in print in the collected work Life & Times of Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald.

Sir Allan had long been the albatross about the government's neck.
End quote

It is not surprising that this is used in political commentary, though I feel like it is one of the harsher things said about a politician. I’m not sure why but calling someone the albatross around the neck feels pretty intense.

The term albatross became insanely popular in the early 1900s. It was used in clothing lines, and as the name of certain clothing items like coats, dresses and robes. Albatross was used in the names of clubs or to refer to groups of influential folks. And the story of the Albatross from the Mariner poem was retold… repeatedly.

There was a short article in the January 08, 1911, edition of the The San Francisco Call out of San Francisco, California titled The Albatross. Here is an excerpt,
The albatross, that wanderer of the seas so often referred to in prose and poem, is nevertheless a stranger to the average person, and by some is even considered a myth. In Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," the albatross plays a leading part, and one sorrows for the poor bird which, after following the ship for weeks, is pitilessly shot down by a mariner.

The albatross is the largest seabird having the power of flight, and is closely allied to the gull, petrel and Mother Carey's chicken. It has a tremendous stretch of wing, averaging from 10 to 12 feet. The wings are, however, extremely narrow, being about nine inches in breadth. The body is about four feet in length and the weight is from 15 to 18 pounds, a comparatively light weight when one considers the extreme length of wing. The albatross is possessed of a peculiarly long, oddly shaped bill, which gives it a strange appearance;
End Quote

Here is a story using our term from the February 23, 1929 edition of the Las Vegas Age out of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Slapstick No Fun
But the comedian wanted to get out of rough-and-tumble comedy. He nursed no secret ambition to play Hamlet, but he did desire to break away from the "daily torture" undergone in the making of slapstick. So he went to his manager and asked him to look around for other parts for him, parts requiring more dramatic ability. The manager did. Then it was that Al discovered that his bicycles, like the albatross, were hanging heavily about his neck. The agent would go to a studio for his client. "Oh, yes, St. John," they would say. "Very good- but we can't use a bicycle rider in this picture." Or "Al St. John? He's funny, but this movie hasn't a bicycle in the whole script."
End Quote  

Let’s move to our modern uses, right after we say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon.

Here’s a snapshot of what a typical week looks like on the feed.

On Mondays we have a conversation about what everyone is reading
On Tuesdays the new episode comes out, a full 24 hours before it airs for everyone else
Wednesdays see all the links and cool things we talked about on the show
Thursday is our Patron’s only poll
And on Friday the lightly edited, rarely censored Behind the Scenes video airs, which always includes a little about our week before the show and a cool feature after the show

Plus all the things that made the cutting room floor from that week’s podcast. Available to all Patrons for just $3 per month.

We’ve got some pretty cool stuff at higher levels, too, like Original Digital Artwork once a month, made by Shauna, and awesome name recognition like Pat Rowe gets every episode. And our top spot is currently occupied by the amazing Mary Halsig Lopez.

If you want to help create Bunny Trails week after week, whatever your budget, we are bunnytrailspod on Patreon.


Modern Uses

Is a 1968 song by Fleetwood Mac. The song is a guitar-based instrumental and has a soothing, calm feel to it.

Corrosion Of Conformity’s song Albatross was released in 1994 on the album Deliverance. Their music fits into the genres of Metal, Pop, Rock
Here are some of the lyrics,
You can call me lazy
But I know where I belong
Cause I was born a liar
Albatross, fly on, fly on
With your trust in love from your God above...
I believe the Albatross is me
You can call me lazy
You can call me wrong
Cause I was born a liar
Albatross, fly on, fly on
End Quote

Albatross Necklace
There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of different necklaces depicting or representing an albatross. And the symbolism is both obvious and in my opinion, amazing. I love that people are walking around with actual albatross around their necks. One of the designs I liked - and there were many incredible designs! - is an round/oval pendant with an engraved albatross bird, its wings spread to the sides and an arrow protruding diagonally through its breast. The description reads,
On a ship's journey through icy waters, a sailor kills an albatross for no reason, bringing a curse upon the ship and crew. They suffer through a series of misfortunes until only the guilty sailor remains alive, haunted by his guilt and remorse.
End Quote

Albatross, Bison, Cuttlefish (and Other Animals of the Alphabet) is a 2015 book by Renee Rigdon.
The description merely reads
Enjoy this collection of animals of the alphabet at any age. Have fun poring over the images for all the words that start with each letter!
End Quote

There are few pages online that you can preview and the artwork is really neat. It is hand drawn and appears to be in a few styles like colored pencil, chalks, and so on. I love that the animals included are often less well-known creatures. It’s a fun little book with really cool artwork.

Did you know that in golf, an albatross is the same as a double eagle?
In golf, a "double eagle" is a term used to describe a score of three strokes under par on a single hole. This means that a golfer completes a hole in two strokes less than the par value assigned to that hole.

The term "albatross" is used interchangeably with "double eagle" in golf, and the origin of this term is related to the nautical theme established by the use of "bird" names for different scores in the sport. Just as "birdie" represents a score of one stroke under par and "eagle" represents a score of two strokes under par, "albatross" represents a score of three strokes under par.

It is fitting that such an exceptional and unique achievement in golf would be associated with a bird that is considered rare and majestic due to its symbolism.

There are a number of incredible works of art that depict albatross birds or have albatross in the name. There are two on Saatchiart that stood out.
The first was originally created in 2011 and is titled  
Death of the Albatross by Nanci Schrieber-Smith from the United States. It is an oil painting on canvas and the description reads,
I travel to experience life in other places. No matter where I go, death is a part of life. This painting was inspired by my trip to the Galapagos Islands.
This painting is from the Dead Bird Series.
End Quote

The second was created in 2022 and is titled  
L’Albatros - The Albatross by Jean-Francois LAURENT from France and is also an oil painting on canvas, though the style is different. The description reads,
This large square canvas represents an albatross in full flight. As in the famous poem by Beaudelaire, which inspired it, it spreads his giant wings.

Yet treated with the same range of colors (in shades of blue and grey), the majestic bird stands out from the stormy ocean. A horizontal line treated almost with a single color symbolizes the horizon and the border between the sea and the sky. The farthest space is treated in melted and graded colors while the closest area is painted with large and sharp brushstrokes. Only the area around the bird remains smooth as if it was imposing its power and control over the elements and its environment.
End Quote

Wrap up:
The albatross stands out as a strong and kind of cool idiom. It’s like a timeless relic injected with new meaning. Imagine it… a majestic seabird soaring against vast skies, intertwined with the weight of haunting regrets. It's more than a phrase; it's a snapshot of life's struggles. From personal hurdles to society's quandaries, the albatross captures the grind we all face. Its fusion of elegance and burden just hits different. Navigating through life today, this expression is a testament to resilience. So perhaps the albatross is today's emblem of handling life's heavy stuff with calm.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, send us an email:, or comment on our website


It’s patron poll time!

Recently we posed this question to our Patrons:

Snow or Sand?

A full 80% of our Patrons were in agreement here: Sand

I’ll just say, I dislike the cold. And Jan summed up my thoughts quite well, saying:
I cannot put enough layers of clothing on to make snow an attractive option. Sand it is!
End Quote

My middle kid, when he was 8ish, was playing in the snow. He said, "I love the snow. But I wish there was a version that was not so cold. And maybe not so wet." And I replied, "Sand buddy. You mean sand."

Mary had a similar thought, sharing:

Snow is beautiful but I really don’t like the cold. I had to choose sand because I love beaches and the ocean so much.
End quote

My answer is also sand for the simplest of reasons…
Sand is usually accompanied by large bodies of water or fun playground equipment.

As for the reality of snow, I like it okay... from my cozy spot inside while looking at it through the window... or when I don't have to be anywhere and I can play in it with the kids for an hour then immediately bundle up by the fire with some hot tea... or when I'm on vacation in a cabin and I also have no need to actually leave the warm, comfy inside space.

I also  love the art - the beauty - of snow.
Small, fluffy snowflakes that fill the air and turn the world into a Norman Rockwell painting.
Tiny, perfect flakes that make everything glisten and feel full of hope and the air smell crisp, fresh, renewed.
Big fat snowflakes that look too big to be falling so slowly - that land on your outstretched hand like tiny, gentle snowballs - 'splat'.
And snow that's fallen overnight with very little wind and creates a blanket over the world, quieting and slowing daily life. Even if only for a moment, things feel slightly safer.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.



No comments:

Post a Comment