I heard it on the BBC a few days ago - "to have an albatross around one's neck".


  • Is it in current usage?
  • Can I use it in formal contexts?

I want to use it in the speaking part of my IELTS exam (I should use idioms as well) but I'm worried that my examiner might not know it. P.S my question is not about the meaning of the idiom

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    Did you try looking it up in a dictionary? Did you find it there? Was there a note saying it was archaic or obscure? If not, you should be fine. If your examiner doesn’t know it, so what? No one knows every word in the language, including your examiner. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 19 '17 at 20:33
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    It would strike me as rather affected if I were your evaluator and this was supposed to be spontaneous speech (I confess I don't know how the speaking part of the IELTS works). I would lightly suggest against using it. – Azor Ahai -him- Dec 19 '17 at 21:44
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    @Azor-Ahai if the idiom is used appropriately it doesn't matter if it sounds memorized as long as it's used naturally. Examiners expect non-native candidates to not sound perfectly fluent or perfectly natural. Are you a native speaker? Because the poem, the Ancient Mariner, is (or used to be...?) extremely well-known in the UK. By the way, the OP heard it being used on the BBC, which is not the New Yorker, but the British state-run broadcasting organisation. I should think it knows whether its viewers or listeners are familiar with an idiom or not. – Mari-Lou A Dec 19 '17 at 22:11
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    @Mari-LouA Which is why I "lightly" recommended against it. I don't know what IELTS examiners look for. And yes, I'm a native speaker. I am aware of the poem, but I wouldn't call it "extremely well-known" in the US, I didn't learn about it in either high school or undergrad, and I quite enjoyed my literature classes. – Azor Ahai -him- Dec 19 '17 at 22:16
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    @WesToleman I'm not sure the phrases are precisely equivalent, since a white elephant rather implies a gift or similar external source, at least in British English. – origimbo Dec 20 '17 at 3:05

This idiom is a reference to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in which the narrator shoots an albatros - a 'bird of ill omen' - and terrible consequences ensue. The rest of the crew force him to wear the dead albatross round his neck in penance (actually, I always found this a bit strange - an albatross is a big bird!). Anyway, the idiom is taken to mean an unpleasant burden which one cannot escape. It's a moderately well-known idiom in English; you could use it in formal contexts, in my opinion. Edit in the light of Lambie's comment: - It's not flippant, or offensive or humorous, hence my opinion ref formal contexts.

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    The meaning of the expression is general reference and not asked for. As to register and currency, unsupported opinion does not constitute an answer of the type expected on ELU. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 19 '17 at 20:35
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    @EdwinAshworth it's the opinion of a native speaker which is useful and more helpful than a simple citation from a dictionary. I know of one native speaker who never cites a single reference, yet his answers are rarely criticised for lack of support (Obviously it's not you, but you do know him) – Mari-Lou A Dec 19 '17 at 20:49
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    @EdwinAshworth sure Edwin, if the user wants to support his answer with graphs then, by all means, he should be encouraged, but peterG's answer is perfectly correct and appropriate nonetheless. Besides, the OP says he doesn't care about its meaning but whether native speakers and Cambridge examiners will have heard of the idiom. Well, the answerer is a native speaker and he hasn't copied and pasted his answer from the Internet, it's an honest and original answer. The best there is. Thumbs up! – Mari-Lou A Dec 19 '17 at 21:06
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    It is certainly in use; I've used it, my father used it, I've seen references to the albatross in numerous places and to really answer the important part of the question: if the examiner isn't familiar with it, being able to explain its origin will show his familiarity with both English language and culture, seems like a win-win. Caveat: if they go on to ask questions about other literature, it would be good if that weren't the only writer or poem that he were acquainted with! :o) – Will Crawford Dec 19 '17 at 22:52
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    "[The book is] also a masterful work of rather dense literature. I would expect intelligent and/or well-read individuals to be familiar with it." Read between all the lines in that comment and there's the answer. The tester had better be intelligent and well read of rather dense literature. Personally, I can count all the people I've ever met like that on zero fingers. – Mazura Dec 20 '17 at 0:20

It would certainly impress the average educated Brit, but if you are not sure of its usage then use something else. If you suspect your examiner would only be puzzled by it, then stay clear.


I can think of one reference in (not so) popular music. Public Image Ltd's "Metal Box" / "Second Edition" features the 9-minute song "Albatross", in which John Lydon intones "Getting rid of the Albatross" as a sort of chorus. The Albatross in this case refers to the legacy of Lydon's former group The Sex Pistols, which he was distancing himself from, and which he perceived to be an artistic burden.


The albatross around one’s neck as a symbol of endless, self-inflicted bad luck comes from “The Rime of the Ancient Marineer” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poem is a fairly common assignment in high-school English classes, at least in my experience. I went to high school in New York City; we had to memorize stanzas of it as punishment if we forgot our materials for class. I had a number of friends who attended other schools, and were also required to read it. Can’t say it was a popular assignment (as I said, for my class it was literally punishment), but it did get read.

On the other hand, it wasn’t a particularly popular assignment, and I suspect its tendency to stick out in many people’s minds stems mostly from its considerable length. For anyone who either didn’t pay enough attention in the first place, or wasn’t particularly struck by the poem (and/or by its length) to remember it, or simply didn’t happen to have it assigned in the first place, the phrase is probably unknown. It is not a widely used phrase, in either conversation or media.

But as some evidence that it is widely-known enough to see use, the film Serenity includes this dialogue:

The Operative: That girl will rain destruction down on you and your ship. She is an albatross, Captain.

Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: Way I remember it, albatross was a ship’s good luck, ’til some idiot killed it.

Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: [to Inara] Yes, I’ve read a poem. Try not to faint.

and then later, to the “that girl” in question:

Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: But it ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross.

Serenity was a feature-length major motion picture from 2005; the people who made it apparently considered their audience likely enough to know of “The Rime of the Ancient Marineer” and its albatross to include these lines (but then also basically explained the reference with the “Yes, I’ve read a poem,” line).

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