An Albatross Round your Neck

“God save thee, ancient Mariner!

From the fiends, that plague thee thus!-

Why looks’t thou so?”-With my cross-bow

I shot the ALBATROSS.

This is one of the more unusual English idioms. It means a very heavy, psychological burden.

But why an albatross?

I mean, they’re heavy of course, but there are plenty of other animals that would be equally or more burdensome. A golden retriever. A boar. A python, which would also have the advantage of requiring little additional effort to hang round someone’s neck. But no, we always refer to an albatross, and it’s all thanks to one specific poem.

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, quoted above. In the poem, the eponymous mariner kills an albatross following the ship during a voyage. This angers his fellow sailors, as they believed that an albatross following a ship was good luck, and made the wind blow favourably (and in fairness, the wind does stop blowing after the bird dies). They therefore punish the mariner:

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks

Had I from old and young!

Instead of the cross, the Albatross

About my neck was hung.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that a southern royal albatross weighs approximately 8.5kg, so it was no mean punishment. I won’t spoil the rest of the poem by the way, so if you want to know what happens next, click on the link to it above.

This idiom is an interesting case of a very specific expression entering the language from one specific source. The phrase comes solely from this poem, and in fact there’s no evidence to suggest that albatrosses were considered particularly lucky in real life. They may have been believed to have been incarnations of the souls of sailors by some, but there’s also plenty of evidence of hungry sailors killing and eating albatrosses without punishment (though perhaps that’s only because they ate the intended instrument of punishment).

Apart from this expression though, the poem has been quite generous to the English language. The phrase a sadder but wiser man probably has its origins here (where it’s actually a sadder and a wiser man). The poem might also be responsible for the phrase all creatures great and small. I say might, because here the line is:

He prayeth best, who loveth best

All things both great and small;

The most famous line (though still usually slightly misquoted) is undoubtedly:

Water, water, every where,

Nor any a drop to drink.

There is one more contribution to the English language from Coleridge (though not from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) that I’ve always found fascinating. It’s not commonly known outside literary circles though. His poem “Kubla Khan; or, a Vision in a Dream: a Fragment” is (apart from being a sheer tour de force in punctuation) famous for being, as the title suggests, unfinished. As the title also suggests, Coleridge claimed it came to him in a dream, and upon waking, he immediately began to write it down. He was, however, interrupted by “a person from Porlock” who called to the door and detained him on some unspecified business for about an hour. When he got back to the poem, he found he couldn’t remember the rest, and had to abandon it. Since then, person from Porlock, man from Porlock, or simply Porlock, have been used as literary allusions to unwanted visitors who interrupt an artist’s creative flow. An interesting literary depiction of the person from Porlock can be found in Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (the novel: I can’t speak for the TV series as I haven’t seen it), which is a very funny read which I recommend even if you have no interest in Coleridge or the people of Porlock.

But what’s that you say? All this talk of Romantic poets is well and good, but you want to hear more about albatrosses? Well then check back in tomorrow, when, to my great surprise, and probably yours, I will actually have some more interesting facts about albatrosses!

11 thoughts on “An Albatross Round your Neck

    • Oops. Sorry. That was Mirriam-Webster’s Word-of-the-Day email that I’m thinking of.
      The word was “esemplastic” (Fabulous word!):

      ‘”Unusual and new-coined words are, doubtless, an evil; but vagueness, confusion, and imperfect conveyance of our thoughts, are a far greater,” wrote English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Biographia Literaria, 1817. True to form, in that same work, he assembled esemplastic by melding the Greek phrase es hen, meaning “into one,” with plastic to fulfill his need for a word that accurately described the imagination’s ability to shape disparate experiences into a unified whole (e.g., the poet’s imaginative ability to communicate a variety of images, sensations, emotions, and experiences in the unifying framework of a poem). The verb intensify was another word that Coleridge was compelled to mint while writing Biographia.’

      Liked by 1 person

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