For some reason, coots have been front and centre on my visits to Copenhagen this spring and last. Never before had I had the good fortune of observing them so closely, but I was stumped as to their Estonian name.
Coots are blissfully easy to identify, being entirely charcoal grey to black apart from their white bill and facial shield. This white spot has given rise to the phrase “as bald as a coot” as well as the bird’s Estonian name lauk, as per the name for such a white facial marking on a horse or other animal (a blaze). The lauk’s round body, short beak (for a wading bird) and manner of bobbing its head while swimming has earned it the name marsh hen or mud hen. Estonians are on the same track, with the nicknames rookana (reed chicken / hen), järvekana (lake hen) and vesikana (water hen).
In Estonian a lauk can be many things: 1) a white facial marking on an animal, a blaze, (similarly, any patch or cluster of lines, esp. in a woven rug, as well as a part drawn in the hair with a comb (a synonym of seitel); 2) the charming hen-like water bird (vesilind) in the photo, as well as 3) a member of the garlic and onion family of edible plants including porrolauk (leek), küüslauk (garlic) and murulauk (chives). The possessive form of all these homonyms is laugu.
The expression “What a silly old coot!” to describe a foolish or crotchety person could derive from the said bird’s bald spot as a sign of age, or its tendency towards aggressive behaviour. Perhaps the bird’s capriciously stubborn manner of running along the water with its lobed-toed feet, gaining inertia before finally taking off (like a loon – kaur) gave rise to the comparison. These are all characteristics of the Common or Eurasian coot (Fulica atra), which also breeds in Eesti, as well as the exceedingly similar American coot (Fulica americana) inhabiting North America.
The first Estonian koot that might comes to mind these days (pronounced “gooht”, with an O as in orange) is a seakoot or pork shin / pigs feet, which are boiled to make sült (jellied meat). Koot is the lower part of the leg of any animal, as well as the cut of meat originating there from, but the first entry in the dictionary is that of an old farm tool used for threshing grain – a flail. It consists of a staff or handle with a freely swinging stick or bar attached to one end and in some areas is also called a pint (poss. form pinda).
There is even a koot in the night sky, depending on who you ask. While most see the shape of a hunter and especially his 3-star belt as part of the prominent and well-known constellation Orion, Estonians see a flail and a rake – Koot ja reha within the same group of stars.
A flail used in medieval times could be called a gooti koot (Gothic flail) and if while flailing in the 14th century, you happened to hit the taskmaster’s shin (kubjase koot), you would have been wise to take off as fast as your legs could carry (kiiruga minema kootima). NB: the last two uses are in jovial slang.
Copenhagen’s coot is not Estonia’s koot