meaning and origin of ‘an albatross around one’s neck’

 

albatross

photograph: pixabay

 

 

 

The phrase an albatross around one’s neck denotes a source of frustration, obstruction or guilt, from which it is difficult to rid oneself.

It alludes to The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, by the English poet, critic and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), published in Lyrical Ballads, with a few other poems (Bristol, 1798), by Coleridge and the English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850); in this narrative poem, the mariner shoots for some unknown reason an albatross whose earlier appearance had prevented the ship from becoming ice-bound. The shooting brings a curse on the ship and its crew, and the dead albatross is hung around the mariner’s neck as punishment:

Ah wel-a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young;
Instead of the Cross the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

One by one the crew members die, leaving the mariner alone. While watching beautiful water-snakes around the ship, he finds himself blessing them: the albatross falls from his neck, and his life is saved. He must wander the world telling his tale and teaching reverence for God’s creation, “all things both great and small”.

The earliest figurative use of the phrase that I have found is from The Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Ireland) of Friday 25th September 1857, in an article about gull-shooting, “pre-eminently a sport for snobs—for hard-hearted, bloodthirsty, beer-swilling, lazy snobs”:

And the wail of the abandoned nestlings will wax fainter and fainter, till it rings no longer through the rock caverns, and the whole brood lies dead and cold—to hang with the murdered parents, let us hope, in another and a better world, round the neck of the snob-murderer, as the Albatross round the neck of the Ancient Mariner.

In The Morning Post (London) of Monday 26th March 1866, a reporter wrote, about the Franchise Bill:

The albatross around the neck of the Ancient Mariner was a light burden to this bill suspended round the necks of the time-honoured occupants of the Treasury bench.

The earliest figurative use without explicit reference to The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere that I have found is from The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, Louisiana) of Sunday 12th December 1886, in the review of the final instalment in The Century of The Minister’s Charge, a novel by the American author William Dean Howells (1837-1920):

Lemuel Barker, the minister’s charge, is a man born in lowly circumstances, whose moral and mental growth is rapid and constant; at one period he meets a factory girl whom he loves after a fashion and engages himself to; his growth continues, while she remains stationary, and before long he has grown so far away from her that she hangs like an albatross around his neck.

The following is from Army’s Hard Selling Pays Off, published in The Times (London) on Saturday 16th February 1963:

By January 1, 1963, nearly 28,000 more men had joined the Army […]. The magic figure of 165,000 was passed in the summer […].
[…]
It is unlikely that the infantry problem will be solved until it is attacked at its roots—the wasteful and out-of-date geographical system of recruiting; but the Director of Recruiting, with the albatross of “165,000” removed from about his neck, has already started to attack the problem of balance.

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