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The Albatross

A rare beast

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That’s no regular birdie. Whether on the course or in the wild, you don’t forget when an albatross lands in your path. Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty Images
That’s no regular birdie. Whether on the course or in the wild, you don’t forget when an albatross lands in your path. Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty Images

For those with driver or fairway wood in hand, an albatross is the stuff of legend. They still talk about Johnny Miller’s double eagle in 1972 at Muirfield and Louis Oosthuizen’s bomb at Augusta in 2012. Gene Sarazen’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” at the 1935 Masters is one of the most famous shots in golf history. And yet for non-golfers, an albatross is a weighty burden no one wants hung ’round their neck. What gives?

The albatross—or Diomedeidae, to use the scientific name—is a seabird. The name is apparently a variation of alcatras, a word for frigate birds, which were often confused with albatrosses. The term was also influenced by the Latin albus, meaning “white”—the primary color of this impressive beast whose wingspan can be as long as 11 feet, the largest of any known bird. But such greatness can be a blessing or a curse in English.

The albatross as a curse comes from Samuel Coleridge’s 1798 poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which included the line, “Instead of the cross, the Albatross/ About my neck was hung.” More examples took flight in the 1880s, including an 1883 use in Joseph Edmund Collins’ Life and Times of the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald: Premier of the Dominion of Canada: “Sir Allan had long been the albatross about the government’s neck.” Today, anything that weighs us down—a sizable debt, an unshakable guilt, a raft of unopened email—can be called an albatross.

In the 20th century, this wide-winged bird took on a more auspicious meaning for golfers. Golf historian Neil Laird has traced the term back to 1929 and a reference in the Hartlepool Mail that noted the absence of this exceptional score: “One certainly didn’t hear of any ‘albatrosses’ or even ‘eagles’ but certainly some ‘birdies’ were achieved.” Laird supports the theory that the adoption of steel-shafted clubs in the 1920s increased the chances of recording an albatross and thus increased demand for a word. 

Language is seldom as logical as a Vulcan, but there’s a clear progression inherent in golf. As one moves from birdie to eagle to albatross, the increasing size of these feathered friends mirrors the increasing strokes under par. That logic prevails further with the rarest of birds: the condor, a hole-in-one on a par 5 (or perhaps a 2 on a par 6) that makes the ultra-rare albatross seem commonplace. Though dedicated ornithologists will note that the condor’s wingspan isn’t as lengthy as the albatross’, it is heftier, thereby continuing the pairing of weightier birds with better scores.

There isn’t much connection between the positive and negative senses of albatross, but on the American Dialect Society listserv, word-watcher Garson O’Toole concocted a humorous fake history: “If you shot an albatross on the golf course then the golf pin flag is draped around your neck and carefully fastened so that it is very difficult to remove. The only way to remove the flag is to go to the clubhouse bar and buy everyone a celebratory drink.”

This theory is silly bunk, but people have believed far sillier when it comes to word origins. And we won’t argue if someone decides to make this fake history a reality. They’ve earned it. 

Mark Peters is a columnist for McSweeney’s, a professional etymologist and a comedian. His latest book is Bullshit: A Lexicon.