The pelican does not have an overwhelmingly noble image in the modern world. Comics have undoubtedly had an influence on this: the bird is portrayed as a large, ungainly thing with a great big pouch in its bill that it uses for stowing whole fish. As Dixon Merritt wrote:
A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.
It matters little or not at all that the word pelican is in its way delicate, with tastes of skin (pellicule) and peels and angel hair pasta (cappellini) and possibly even singing (a capella). The focus is now on the big garbage can of a bill.
Nor would it be served so well now by its alternate name, taken from the Spanish: alcatras. The taste of the prison, named (in archaic Spanish) for the island it was on, named for the birds that flocked there, is hard to get past, even though the word has a certain delicacy that could go either way – hints of scar and sacral but also alcohol and star and perhaps class… Both words have two voiceless stops and that liquid /l/ plus one other consonant, and both have three syllables with a dactylic rhythm. Neither has an easy phonological or orthographical resemblance to the big bird with the big bill. But we still no doubt view it better than we would if it were named, say, grackle.
I say alcatras comes from Spanish because that is its immediate source, but this word, like some others that begin with al, comes originally from Arabic, where al is a definite article. And like most of those others (including alcohol and algebra), it means something a little different from the original – in this case, the source, al gattas, referred to a kind of sea eagle. But an even greater shift shows up in albatross, which also comes from al gattas but with the Spanish influence of alba “white”.
But talking of shifts: this is the bird that is the national bird of Romania (and of the fictional Syldavia in the the Tintin books) and three Caribbean countries, and the state bird of Louisiana; this is the symbol of institutions such as the Irish Blood Transfusion service; this is the bird featured on the coats of arms of Corpus Christi Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, and used in heraldry as a symbol of selfless sacrifice, vulning, because of its use in Christian iconography to represent Jesus – the sacrifice of a parent for children. And to advert to the eucharist, the consumption of bread and wine as the body and blood of Jesus.
What? Well, the pelican (alcatras, if you prefer) was long thought to wound itself in the breast to feed its young its blood when food was scarce. You see, pelicans have a habit of pressing their beaks against their chests to empty their pouches, and this can look like wounding itself in the chest. Some kinds of pelicans also have red on their bills at certain times, which can look like blood. It is thought that these things, observed, were interpreted as the selfless act.
And thus we have, for instance, this verse from a hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas:
Pie Pelicane, Jesu Domine,
Me immundum munda tuo sanguine:
Cujus una stilla salvum facere
Totum mundum quit ab omni scelere.
Which translates (I’ll use Wikipedia’s version) as:
Lord Jesus, Good Pelican,
wash me clean with your blood,
One drop of which can free
the entire world of all its sins.
That’s a far cry from “I’ll be damned if I know how the helican.” And it’s also a bit of a trip from national symbols to a prison island… But redemption may come again. After all, Alcatraz is now a very popular attraction with beautiful flowers and plenty of birds surrounding its grim buildings.