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SWEDISH WORD OF THE DAY

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 lysforlag.com/vvv 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

Swedish word of the day: tant

Tant is more than just a word, it's a whole lifestyle.

Swedish word of the day: tant

The most common use of the word tant is as a slightly derogatory way of talking about an older woman, similar to how the word gubbe can be used to describe an older man. A tant is usually considered to be middle-aged or older, but can also be used ironically to describe younger women.

In the past, it was often used affectionately to refer to an older female family member, such as a great-aunt. Nowadays, some older women may consider the word somewhat of a compliment, whereas some may find it insulting, so it’s probably best to avoid using it unless you’re absolutely sure whether the person in question would approve.

Although the word tant can be used to describe your aunt by marriage (i.e. the wife of one of your parent’s siblings), most Swedes would instead describe their aunt by marriage simply as their morbror or farbrors fru (the wife of your mother’s brother or your father’s brother), in order to avoid the negative connotations it now has.

One translation of tant used in the derogatory sense could be “little old lady”, seen in compound words using tant describing styles or objects which tants are known for. Two examples of these words could be tantfrisyr (“little old lady haircut”) or tantbil (“little old lady car”).

A tant also usually has a tantväska (“tant bag”). One famous tantväska was caught on film in 1985, when protester Danuta Danielsson was photographed hitting a marching neo-Nazi with her handbag. Her image, immortalised in bronze by artist Susanna Arwin, is shown below.

The statue “The Handbag as a Weapon” by Susanna Arwin on its unveiling in 2018. Photo: Adam Ihse/TT

These words can also be used to tease someone who is usually far too young to be classified as a real tant, by saying something like vilken trevlig tantbil du har skaffat! (“What a nice little-old-lady car you’ve bought!”) or to ironically refer to something tantig you find yourself doing, such as in the example kan du hålla min tantväska? (“Can you hold my tant bag?”).

Similarly, you might ask your friend or partner for their opinion on an outfit or haircut by asking if it makes you look tantig (“like an old lady, frumpy, matronly”).

Another use of the word which has cropped up in recent years is the compound word kulturtant (“culture tant“), which was added to the Swedish dictionary in 2015. According to the Swedish dictionary, this word means “a woman who consumes or dedicates time to culture”.

This description from journalist Måns Uggla in an article headlined “Being a kulturtant is among the finest things you can be” in the Nerikes Allehanda newspaper is perhaps more accurate: “The prejudiced image of a kulturtant is an above middle-aged woman, with Gudrun Sjödén clothes and opinions from the left-wing hippie ideals of the 1960s”.

He further describes kulturtanter as “the women who keep the cultural wheels of Sweden turning”.

Designer Gudrun Sjödén. Photo: Malin Hoelstad/SvD/TT

So, there you have the word tant. More than just a word, tantar are the matriarchs of Swedish society, watching over us with their handbags full of bridgeblandning sweets at the ready. Don’t get on the wrong side of them, though – they’re not afraid to use those handbags.

Example sentences:

Är den här klänning inte lite tantig? Nej älskling, allt klär en skönhet.

Isn’t this dress a bit frumpy? No, darling, everything suits a beauty.

Har du sett tanten i parken med sin lilla hund? Han heter uppenbarligen Potatis.

Have you seen the old lady in the park with her little dog? His name is Potato, apparently.

Det var trevligt, men nu ska jag hem till tanten!

It’s been fun, but I should head home to the missus!

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

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