Being one of those people who felt sad when the six-year run of the TV series Lost came to end back in May of 2010, finding shows that provided the same level of mystery has been part of my viewing habits. I don’t think of myself as much of a television watcher but there are a number of offerings with which I’m happy to spend some time. A way of measuring how interested I am in a show is to take a look at those I’ve recorded on my digital video recorder. Two currently appear their regularly; House and Alcatraz.
I’ve watched House since the beginning, having been an admirer of Hugh Laurie since his early days of working with Stephen Fry on the A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie shows. The fact that both of us (a) are English, (b) live in the US, and (c) ride Triumph motorcycles might add to some sense of identification, but ultimately the character of Dr. Gregory House appeals strongly to my own cynical, atheist, existential viewpoint of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
As for Alcatraz, what first caught my attention was that it comes from the Bad Robot Productions stables; a company owned by J.J. Abrams, one of the creators of Lost. The writers also include Elizabeth Sarnoff, who was a contributor to many Lost episodes. Add to that the general plot that 63 prisoners who disappeared in 1963 were “coming back” to modern-day San Francisco and you’ve got a recipe for keeping my attention.
The island itself is first documented as being named La Isla de los Alcatraces back in 1775, when the Spanish naval officer, Juan Manuel de Ayala y Aranza sailed the San Carlos into San Francisco Bay. The Spanish word alacatraz means pelican, a large-beaked bird that can be found in large numbers on and around the island.
Alcatraz in turn appears to be a modified version of the Portuguese word, alcatruz, which was used to name the bucket of a water wheel. The use of this to refer to the pelican is based on the idea that the beak of the bird is similar to a bucket or large water sack. The word can be tracked even further back to the Arabic al-qādūs meaning “the bucket.” One further step back shows us that qādūs is related to the Greek κάδος meaning “a jar.”
The OED suggests that there was a story that the pelican would scoop up water in its beak and fly back to its young in the desert to give them water. Wonderful as the tale might be, the beak of the pelican actually acts as a water strainer, not a carrier, so that when it scoops up water and fish, the water drains out to leave just the food. But of course, etymology is not about biology and a good story can lead to a real word.
There is an alternative to the bucket theory that is equally plausible. The Arabic for pelican was l-câdous or al-ġaţţās, which means “the diver.” There’s little phonetic change needed to change the Arabic al-ġaţţās to alcatruz. This is also the same route for tracing the origin of the word albatross, but in this case, the word alcatrus is modified by the switch of the alca element to alba, meaning “white.” Again, the sound change from alcatruz to albatruz is minimal.
This misnaming or renaming of birds (or animals) is not uncommon. The European robin is a very different bird from the American robin yet both have the same name. The common bodily feature between them is the red breast, but ornithologically speaking, they are very different. When early European settlers arrived in North America, they simply use the names they already had to new animals that appeared similar.