The word albatross was borrowed in the late seventeenth century from Spanish albatros, which is an alteration of alcatraz, meaning "pelican" (the definition was originally "frigatebird", but that changed over time). Yes, that's the same as the Californian prison island, which was named after the large population of sea birds found there. The exact origin of the word is uncertain; some etymologists think that alcatraz comes from the Arabic word al-gattas, meaning "the diver" (al-, of course, being the Arabic definite article, and gattas ultimately tracing to a Proto-Semitic root with a similar connotation), and another theory is that alcatraz is from al-qadus, meaning "jar", in reference to the pelicans' beaks. To complicate things further, the word may have been influenced by Latin albus ("white") and/or Portuguese alcatruz ("water wheel bucket"). It's all pretty convoluted.
Thank you for the background of the etymological roots of pelican. I was led to look into the origins of pelican after viewing the inaugural nature series, “Earthflight,” which first aired 2011 December 29; the narrator mentioned sometime after the 40 minute mark in the part where they are following a flock of brown pelicans as they migrate by SF’s Golden Gate Bridge and “Alcatraz Island.” The narrator cites that “alcatraz” is an ancient Spanish word for pelican.
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Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic. This year, I graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Government and Linguistics. There, I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society and wrote a thesis on Serbo-Croatian language policy, magna cum laude. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.