Thursday, February 22, 2007


On a podcast of the HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, the host said that he thought the presidential race was gearing up so early in the US because people were so sick of "President Albatross." Everybody knows what albatrosses represent, and the line got big applause.

How do we know that "albatross" means "a burden"? It comes from "Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner," but have we all really read that? (I think it was assigned in my high school English class, but I am not sure about that.) By now, the diangu 典故 (reference) has a life of its own removed from a shared cultural experience of literary reception. When I see that kind of reference in a pre-modern text, though, I often assume that it is part of some common code of the times. That might be a big mistake.

Do we know "albatross-->Coleridge-->burden" or is it just "albatross=burden"?

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