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Swedish word of the day: gökotta

Today's word of the day describes a charming Swedish tradition which often takes place around Ascension Day in late May or early June.

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

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 – or join The Local as a member and get your copy for free.

It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.

By Shandana Mufti and Becky Waterton

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Swedish word of the day: skärgård

You don't have to spend long in Sweden to hear the word skärgård, especially if you live in cities like Stockholm or Gothenburg where the population relocate to the nearby skärgård every summer. Where does the word come from?

Swedish word of the day: skärgård

Skärgård is, like many Swedish words, a compound word made up of the word skär, describing a small rocky outcrop and gård, which has a number of meanings such as “courtyard”, “farm” or “garden”.

Although skärgård is often translated to English as “archipelago” – a group of islands – the word officially refers to an archipelago made up primarily of small islands, close to the coast of a larger island or landmass, such as the rocky archipelagos near Stockholm and Gothenburg.

Other kinds of archipelago – such as those which are not close to other landmasses, or those made up of larger islands – can be referred to as an arkipelag or ögrupp. However, many Swedes will just use skärgård for any kind of archipelago.

Although the word skärgård doesn’t exist in English, a variant of skär has made its way into the language. The English term for this type of small rocky outcrop is “skerry”.

Skerry has an interesting etymology in English – it comes from the Old Norse term sker, which refers to a rock in the sea. This is related to the Swedish word skära, meaning “cut” – a skerry is a rock cut off from land.

Sker came into English via Scots, where it is spelled skerry or skerrie. Other languages also have this word, such as Norwegian skjær/skjer, Estonian skäär, Finnish kari and Russian шхеры (shkhery). It can also be found in Scottish Gaelic sgeir, Irish sceir and Welsh sgeri.

This also reflects the geographic area where skerries are found – there are skerries or skärgårdar along the northernmost part of the Swedish west coast near Bohuslän and Gothenburg, as well as on the east coast near Stockholm. The Norwegian coast also has a large number of skerries, and Skärgårdshavet or “the Archipelago Sea” lies off the southwestern coast of Finland.

In Russia, the Minina Skerries (Shkhery Minina) are one example of a skärgård, and in Scotland, Skerryvore and Dubh Artach in the Hebrides are also made up of skerries. Northern Ireland is home to The Skerries, off the Antrim coast, and Skerries is also the name of a coastal area of Dublin in the Republic of Ireland.

You may be wondering if the surname of the famous Swedish Skarsgård family of actors – Stellan, Gustaf, Bill, Valter and Alexander Skarsgård, among others – comes from the word skärgård. Although the spelling is similar, this name actually comes from the town of Skärlöv on the island of Öland, and means “Skar’s farm” (Skares gård, in Swedish).

Example sentences

Jag ser redan fram emot sommarsemestern – vi har hyrt en stuga ute i Stockholms skärgård.

I’m already looking forwards to summer – we’ve rented a cottage out in the Stockholm archipelago.

Sverige har många skärgårdar, fast Skärgårdshavet vid Finlands västkust är störst i världen med över 50 000 öar och skär.

Sweden has a lot of archipelagos, but the Archipelago Sea off Finland’s west coast is the biggest in the world has over 50,000 islands and skerries.

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.