Swedish word of the day: gökotta

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Swedish word of the day: gökotta
What time is it? Cuckoo o'clock! Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Today's word of the day describes a now uncommon Swedish tradition which is linked to Ascension Day in late May or early June.


The noun gökotta describes the Swedish tradition of going birdwatching - or taking a fågelskådartur - in order to spot a gök (cuckoo).

The word is made up of the noun gök, the Swedish word for cuckoo, and otta, an old Swedish word for the time of day between night and dawn. The word otta comes from Old Norse ótta. Ótta still exists in Icelandic, where it historically referred to 3 o'clock in the morning, under an old system where night and day were split into three-hour chunks (3 o'clock in the afternoon also had a special term in Icelandic: nón).

The word has an indo-European root, which also produced the Gothic 𐌿𐌷𐍄𐍅𐍉 (ûhtwô), Old High German uohta and Old English ūhta. This indo-European root is also the origin of the Sanskrit word अक्तु (aktu) meaning "night" or "dark".


Nowadays, you are most likely to hear the term otta in relation to some sort of religious ceremony, such as a julotta (an early service on Christmas morning), or an ottesång, an early-morning hymn service which used to take place in churches across Sweden on Sundays and religious holidays.

Anyway, back to the gökotta. The tradition involves going into the forest early on a spring morning, picnic in hand, to wait in silence in hopes of hearing the cuckoo's song.

Around a century ago, celebrating the gökotta became popular in Sweden - with Ascension Day being a good time to do so, as it coincides with the cuckoo's return from its winter migration in Africa.

Although some churches organise outdoor services featuring a gökotta excursion, the tradition has its roots in the Swedish folk movement.

In southern Sweden, you may be able to hear the cuckoo as early as the end of April - in mountainous areas and further north, you may have to wait two or three weeks more before you can hear its cry.

According to Swedish folk belief, the cry of the cuckoo may be a fateful sound, depending on the direction from which the sound is heard: Södergök är dödergök, östergök är tröstegök. Nordegök är sorgegök, västergök är bästergök. ("Southern cuckoo is death cuckoo, eastern cuckoo is consolation cuckoo. Northern cuckoo is sorrow cuckoo, western cuckoo is the best cuckoo").


Additionally, a cuckoo's cry heard near your home was considered as warning of an imminent death. Cuckoos may even hold answers to the future: another folk belief suggests that asking the first cuckoo you hear the following question and waiting for the number of calls in response will reveal the life expectancy of the person asking the question: “Lilla gök på kvist, säg mig visst, hur många år jag får? / Little cuckoo on a branch, tell me, how many years will I get?”

On a more cheerful note, folklore also states that the first cuckoo of the season can reveal when you will marry: count one year for each time the cuckoo cries in response to your question.

Example sentences

Vill ni med på gökotta imorgon bitti?

Do you want to go looking for cuckoos early tomorrow morning?

Gökottan är en gammal svensk tradition som har sina rötter i den svenska folkrörelsen.

The gökotta is an old Swedish tradition with its roots in the Swedish folk movement.

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is available to order. Head to to read more about it.

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By Shandana Mufti and Becky Waterton


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