Thursday 24 June 2021

Flying Saucers, Pelicans, Prisons and Albatrosses


Today is, of course, the 74th anniversary of the Kenneth Arnold UFO sighting. The event is celebrated by lexicographers everywhere because it gave the English language two new terms: flying saucer and pelicanist.

Kenneth Arnold was a businessman and aviator who, on June 24th 1947, saw nine thingummybobs flying past Mount Ranier in Washington State at over a thousand miles an hour. Or, he says he saw them. This blog post will not answer the great question as to whether extraterrestrial life visits earth, because, though I know the answer, I'm not telling.

The question as to who first called these thingummybobs flying saucers is rather vexed. Kenneth Arnold says that he didn't use the term, that he only said that the motion of their flight resembled a saucer being skipped across the surface of a lake. However, there was a journalist who insisted that Arnold said the objects looked like saucers, and the term could have been invented by any of a hundred headline writers who wrote about the Great Event.

(Incidentally, I have skipped a lot of stones across lakes, but never a saucer. I've never even heard of somebody skipping a saucer across a lake, and can only dream of having that much redundant crockery. We all need a dream.)

However it happened, and whoever said what, the term flying saucer came into being as a result of this event 74 years ago today. 

Of course, there were naysayers. There were those who said that the flying saucers were, in fact, clouds, or very distant mountain tops, or very near drops of water on the windows of Mr Arnold's own aircraft, or pelicans.

The pelican theory is curious. Pelicans are large birds. Their wingspans can be over three metres (ten feet). But they don't really resemble saucers and they don't fly at over a thousand miles an hour unless they're in the most terrible hurry.

The pelican theory is a bit silly. It attempts to explain away a not-that-believable story with an even less likely one. It would be a lot simpler to suggest that Mr Arnold imagined the whole thing. The pelicans are unlikely, and if I have learned anything in this life, it is that one should never rely on an unlikely pelican.

So silly is the pelican idea, that flying saucer enthusiasts coined the term pelicanist for those who would explain away all sightings with unlikely substitutes. By extension the word can be used for anybody who proposes a preposterous but naturalistic explanation for an inexplicable event.

(Incidentally, and without wanting to sidetrack myself, there's a lot of pelicanism when it comes to Shakespeare. The (idiotic) theory that William Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare often runs something along the lines of "no man could never have written something so wonderful, that's simply not believable; so it must have been written by someone else").

Anyway, there are a lot of pelicans on the west coast of America. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the bay of St Francis they found an island absolutely covered with them. So they named it Pelican Island. Except being Spaniards they did it all in Spanish. And that's why San Francisco bay contains the island of Alcatraz, because alcatraz is just Spanish for pelican. It comes from the Arabic al ghattas meaning sea-eagle.

The English used to use the word alcatras, largely because pelicans aren't native to Britain so we might as well use the Spanish word. However, we never seemed to be entirely sure what an alcatras was. The OED lists alcatras as an English word, or at least a word used by the English, but one of the definitions is "Perhaps: an albatross".

This makes perfect sense because albatross is simply an alternative way of pronouncing alcatraz. Pelicans and albatrosses are both huge nautical birds, and could quite forgivably be mistaken for each other. This means that they are unidentified flying objects.

Of course, the albatross/alcatraz/alcatras has earned an immortal place in English literature:

A gorgeous bird is the pelican,

Whose beak will hold more than his bellican.

He can put in his beak

Food enough for a week.

But I’m damned if I see how in hellecan.

The Inky Fool was in a terrible hurry

P.S. The proximate cause of this post was The Times Crossword on Tuesday. The clue for 1 across was:

1 Pelican that's not more, unfortunately right after feline enters (8)

right after feline = cat r

that enters the word alas, which means unfortunately.

You get al-catr-as

Which is an obsolete synonym for pelican.


  1. Maybe there are very arthouse saucers that resemble pelicans.

  2. 'For shees the best Wife that ever had man.'
    A pelicon crossing pedestrian.

  3. Typo in your rendering of the clue: should be "no more" (obsolete)

  4. Hi there! I am going to teach 8th and 11th grade English in the fall, and I would like to find more examples of Shakespeare transforming material written by someone else into something awesome. Do you have any resources? Thanks!

    1. The standard example would be either "the barge she sat in" or Prospero's "ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes..." versus Golding's translation of Ovid "ye elves of hills, of brooks, of woods alone..."

  5. Today I learned 2 things. One is that "right after feline" equals "cat r". How, some might ask? Well, that´s the second, it was a pelican´s crossings

    1. A CAT is a feline. 'R' is a standard abbreviation for 'right' (as 'L' is for 'left), so "right after feline" in a cryptic crossword clue can be interpreted as R after CAT, or CATR.

    2. And the pelicans flew away, thank you for your kind response

  6. "But I’m damned if I see how in hellecan" - this sentence is an albatrocity. It pleases me greatly.

    Talk of Shakespeare/unlikely substitutes reminds me of this bit in Burgess' A Dead Man in Deptford (in which, mercifully, Marlowe does not turn out to have written Shakespeare) re. John Marston 'improving on' Marlowe: "It was surely wrong of him to emend the verse about shallow rivers to whose falls melodious birds sing madrigals to his 'gallimaufry of cantant avians do vie with mellous fluminosity'. And not in jest neither. There is a limit to all things."

  7. Hey Mark, big fan here, enjoying the Eloquence employed in Elements of Eloquence; Though one cannot help but be dismayed by your example of Hebrew poetry (if such a thing existed for so base a tongue) instead of the infinitely superior (and more apropriate) that of Arabic. I'll have you know my good Sir that while English employs several of the admirable metres of the ancient Greeks, if one were to sum both together they would still fall short of Arabic's 16 metres, not to mention the 30 or so classifications of rhythm.

  8. As a very near-sighted person, I have to wonder just how good was Mr. Arnold's vision? Maybe he was too vain to wear glasses, or perhaps not aware of a deficit in his visual acuity!