"large web-footed sea-bird of the petrel family," 1670s, probably from Spanish or Portuguese albatros, an alteration of alcatraz "web-footed sea-bird; cormorant," originally "pelican" (16c.). This name is perhaps from Arabic al-ghattas "sea eagle" [Barnhart]; or from Portuguese alcatruz "the bucket of a water wheel" [OED], from Arabic al-qadus "machine for drawing water, jar" (which is said to be from Greek kados "jar"). If the second, the name would be a reference to the pelican's pouch (compare Arabic saqqa "pelican," literally "water carrier").
The spelling was influenced by Latin albus "white." The name was extended by 17c. English sailors to a larger sea-bird (order Tubinares), which are not found in the North Atlantic. [In English the word also formerly was extended to the frigate-bird.]
These albatrosses follow ships for days without resting and were held in superstitious awe by sailors. The figurative sense of "burden" (1936) is from Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798) about a sailor who shoots an albatross and then is forced to wear its corpse as an indication that he alone, not the crew, offended against the bird. The prison-island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay is named for pelicans that roosted there. In Dutch, stormvogel; in German Sturmvogel "storm-bird."
updated on September 16, 2022