• albatross •
æl-bê-traws • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A large web-footed sea bird with a hooked beak and long, narrow wings, of the family Diomedeidae, that flies the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere. 2. A curse, a constant burden, an obstacle to success. 3. In golf, a score of three under par on a hole, one less stroke than an eagle.
Notes: This poor bird was accidentally maligned in a poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The albatross was beloved by ancient seamen because it flew so far out from shore, that it was usually the first indication of land seen on board inbound ships. In Coleridge's poem, a seaman killed an albatross, then had to wear its carcass around his neck in penance, hence the second meaning above. The plural is albatrosses.
In Play: Speakers of all languages find references to animals much more striking and memorable than references to objects or abstractions. That makes today's Good Word an ear-catching metaphor in all situations: "Mom, Billy is such an albatross! Why do I have to stay home and baby-sit him again?" Just look around for clever applications, "Jess Gough called her husband 'Al Batross' for several years before he finally caught on and took offense."
Word History: Today's Good Word probably started out as Latin alcatras "pelican" (or the Portuguese or Spanish version, alcatraz) but shifted under the influence of Latin albus "white". The Latin word was borrowed from Arabic al-gattas, comprising al- "the" + gattas "diver, sea eagle". Arabic gattas is the noun from gatasa "to plunge, dive". Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, home of the infamous prison, got its name for the flock of pelicans that resided there.