Albatross Around My Neck – Idiom Meaning & Origin

Are you scratching your head at the idiom “albatross around my neck”? We’ll explain the origins of this phrase and what it means so you can use it in your writing.

You might have come across the phrase “albatross around my neck” when reading or during a conversation with someone and had no idea what it meant. While you might have taken a guess and thought it had something to do with birds, the phrase is used to describe a heavy burden one carries.

This meaning was captured by Alan Cohen when he said: “View the past as your enemy, and it will be an albatross. View it as your friend, and it will give you wings.”

The saying comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner which was published in 1798. Since then, the idiom has also shown up in other influential works of literature, including Moby-Dick by Herman Melville and D.H. Lawrence’s poem Snake.

Mary Shelley, an acquaintance of Coleridge, also referenced the poem in her novel Frankenstein, when the character Robert Walton says, “I shall kill no albatross.”

The phrase has remained commonplace in the English language, even by speakers who do not know the origin. Let’s learn more about this idiom.

You might also be interested in our idiom vs. metaphor explainer.

Albatross Around My Neck Origin

This idiom can be credited to Samuel Taylor Coleridge after he penned The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in the 1700s.

In the poem, a mariner recalls a voyage he once took where his ship was driven to the Antarctic due to bad weather. To the relief of the crew, an albatross leads the ship to safety, but then the mariner shoots the large seabird with a crossbow.

The crew is initially outraged but when the weather clears, they think it brought them good fortune. Their good luck soon runs out, and they end up in uncharted waters. As a result, the crew blames the mariner for their bad luck. Since they can no longer speak due to dehydration, they shoot him evil looks and force him to wear the dead bird around his neck.

Eventually, the crew perishes. Although the mariner is eventually rescued, he feels compelled by guilt to share the story with all who will hear it.

There are many ways to interpret the poem. Some readers see it as a warning about the consequences of a thoughtless act or as a representation of guilt and penance.

This poem is also where another popular saying comes from; “Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” It’s often misquoted as “Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.” This saying is arguably just as popular, if not more, in pop culture with references in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Simpsons.

What Does An Albatross Around The Neck Mean?

The idiom is used to describe a burden, whether it’s a psychological or more tangible burden. In particular, it’s often used to describe something that holds you back or burdens you that you cannot escape. The burden could have been self-inflicted or the result of a bad decision.

Let’s say you impulsively got a tattoo in your youth but have come to regret it, you might describe it as an albatross around your neck.

Here are some more examples of this idiom in a sentence:

  • I can’t find someone to buy my car. That thing is an albatross around my neck.
  • Quitting her job was an albatross around her neck, she never financially recovered.
  • Dropping out of college has become an albatross around my neck, no one will hire me.
  • Pawning that vintage ring is an albatross around my neck, I had no idea what it was worth!
  • These never-ending chores are like an albatross around my neck. I have no time for anything.

Some speakers will omit the “around my neck” part of the idiom and simply refer to something as an albatross. This doesn’t change the meaning, as many English speakers already associate the word albatross with negativity or understand the meaning based on the context.

For example:

  • The leak in the roof is an albatross.
  • All these bills are an albatross.
  • My bad knee is an albatross.
  • Caring for so many people has become an albatross.

Although less frequent, you might also come across people referring to themselves as an albatross, meaning they view themselves as a burden.

What It Means To Call Someone Albatross?

Although this idiom is often used to describe self-inflicted burdens, it can be used as an insult, too. If you were to call someone an albatross, you would be saying they hold you back or are a burden.

Some examples of it being used in this context include the following:

  • You’re an albatross, you never help around the house.
  • My partner is an albatross. I have to support both of us.
  • My ex-partner was an albatross, I thought they would never leave me alone.
  • That albatross always borrows money but never pays me back.

While it’s less commonly used in this way, telling someone not to be an albatross would mean telling them not to be a burden.

Albatross Around My Neck Synonyms

An anchor weighing me down
One synonym for the phrase albatross around one’s neck is “an anchor weighing me down”

Although albatross around one’s neck is a strong turn of phrase, it’s good to have some other phrases in your idioms dictionary so you don’t overuse it in your writing. Synonyms that you might find in a thesaurus for this phrase include:

  • A weight around one’s neck
  • A cross to bear
  • A millstone around the neck
  • Ball and chain
  • An anchor weighing me down
  • A monkey on my back
  • Shackled

Check out our symbolism explainer for more ways to vary your vocabulary.

Albatross Superstitions

Coleridge’s poem was so influential that harming an albatross is a common sailing superstition. In the 2019 film, The Lighthouse, Willem Dafoe’s character warns that it’s bad luck to kill a seabird, especially an albatross.

In real life, many sailors believe it is good luck to see this bird during a voyage. However, as birds are believed to carry the souls of dead sailors, killing one, especially a wild albatross, will create bad fortune.

You might also be interested in our list of rhetorical devices with examples.

Albatross Around My Neck: FAQs

Is “Albatross Around My Neck” A Metaphor?

This saying is an idiom, not a metaphor. A metaphor compares two seemingly unrelated things, like saying, “My body is a temple.” As an idiom, the phrase “albatross around my neck” doesn’t make sense when we look at it literally, but it has been assigned a meaning.

When Did People Start Saying “Albatross Around The Neck”?

Although Coleridge wrote the poem in the 1700s, the phrase “albatross around the neck” only entered the Oxford English Dictionary in the late 1800s. It isn’t believed to have caught on as a figure of speech with the general public until the 1960s.

Author

  • Aisling is an Irish journalist and content creator with a BA in Journalism & New Media. She has bylines in OK! Magazine, Metro, The Inquistr, and the Irish Examiner. She loves to read horror and YA. Find Aisling on LinkedIn.

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