Sunday, January 11, 2015

alcatraz, albatross and kad

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives the following etymology for albatross:

1670s, probably from Spanish or Portuguese alcatraz "pelican" (16c.), perhaps derived 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" (from Greek kados "jar"), in reference to the pelican's pouch (compare Arabic saqqa "pelican," literally "water carrier"). Either way, the spelling was influenced by Latin albus "white." The name was extended, through some mistake, by English sailors to a larger sea-bird (order Tubinares).
Albatrosses were considered good luck by sailors; figurative sense of "burden" (1936) is from Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798) about the bad luck of a sailor who shoots an albatross and then is forced to wear its corpse as an indication that he, not the whole ship, offended against the bird. The prison-island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay is named for pelicans that roosted there.

The connection to the Arabic and Greek words for "jar" is interesting. We're familiar with the Hebrew word kad כד - also meaning jar, going all the way back to Bereshit 24:46, in the story of Rivka and the well. Is there a connection - and which came first?

Klein, in his entry for kad (jug, pitcher) says that the Greek kados (and following that, the Latin cadus - "jar") derive from the Hebrew. Other sources seem to agree, and while stating that it's hard to trace the roots of such old words, the likelihood of Greek borrowing from a Semitic root is higher than the other way around.

So we see here a Hebrew (or other Semitic word) being borrowed into Greek (and later Latin), and from there to Arabic, from there to Spanish and Portuguese, ending up in English. And if we want to go one step further - the modern Hebrew word for albatross - אלבטרוס - is borrowed from the English. Quite the journey.

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