English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Coots, feathered and otherwise

Q: Why is an old guy referred to as a “coot”? And what about “geezer”?

A: The use of “coot” for an old man, especially an oddball, seems to have evolved from the early use of “coot” as an informal name for various seabirds, at first apparently the common murre or guillemot (Uria aalge), and later the Eurasian coot (Fulica atra).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the name “coot” was “originally given vaguely or generically to various swimming and diving birds. In many cases it seems to have been applied to the Guillemot.”

Afterward, the OED says, the term “coot” was given to the Eurasian coot “and generically extended to all the species of Fulica.” (A murre in the US is a guillemot in the UK, the latter borrowed from French in the 17th century.)

The dictionary notes that in Dutch, the common murre is Zeekoet or sea coot, and the Eurasian coot is Meerkoet or lake coot. It also mentions a similar “Low German word, the earlier history of which is unknown.”

So how did “coot” evolve in English from the name for a bird to a noun for an old person, especially an eccentric or crotchety old man?

The usage may have been influenced by the odd behavior of the common murre during its breeding season and the similarity in pronunciation of the Eurasian coot’s Latin genus, Fulica, to the English word “fool.”

The common murre has often been referred to as the “foolish guillemot,” a name the English naturalist Thomas Nuttall attributed to “their fatuity in the breeding season, in allowing themselves sometimes to be seized by the hand, or killed on the spot without flying from their favorite cliffs” (A Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and of Canada, Vol. 2, 1834).

In fact, “coot” originally referred to a foolish person when it showed up as a noun for a human being, a usage that the OED suggests may have been inspired by the foolish guillemot.

And Green’s Dictionary of Slang suggests the foolish usage may have originated as a “play on Lat. Fulica.” In classical Latin, fulica referred to a water bird believed to be a coot.

The earliest Oxford example for the noun “coot” used in the avian sense is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “An ostriche, and a nyȝt [night] crowe, and a coote, and an hawke” (Leviticus 11:16).

In the 15th century, writers began using the noun in descriptions of people. The first Oxford citation is from John Lydgate’s Troy Book, a Middle English poem written from 1412 to 1420:

“And yet he was as balde as is a coote.” This was apparently a reference to the Eurasian coot, which has often been referred to as the bald coot because of the white frontal shield on the forehead of the primarily black bird.

The OED has examples for “bare as a coot” and “black as a coot” from the 17th century:

“They poled him as bare as a Coot, by shaving off his Hair” (The Honour of the Merchant Taylors, 1687, by the English poet and biographer William Winstanley).

“The Proverb, as black as the Coot” (The Academy of Armory, 1688, a treatise on arms, armor, heraldry, etc., by the English herald painter and genealogist Randle Holme III).

When “coot” appeared in the 18th century as a noun for a person, it referred to a “silly person” or “simpleton,” according to Oxford.

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from A Compleat Dictionary English and Dutch (1766), by William Sewel: “COOT, Een Zeekoet … A very coot, (or fool) Een gek in folio.”

Although “foolish guillemot” may very well have influenced this usage, that avian phrase didn’t appear in writing until somewhat later in the 18th century, according to our searches of digitized books.

The first example we’ve found is from an October 1779 entry in the account of Capt. James Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific.

The term “Foolish guillemot” appears in a list of web-footed waterfowl found during a stop at the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. (Cook had died on Feb. 14, 1779, in a clash with Hawaiians, and the account of the voyage was completed by Capt. James King.)

The earliest example we’ve seen for the avian use of “guillemot” by itself is on a list of sea birds in The Ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the County of Warwick (1678): “the guillemot or sea-hen.” Willughby was an English ornithologist and ichthyologist.

The noun “coot” came to mean an old man in the 19th century. The earliest citation in Green’s Dictionary, which we’ve expanded, is from High Life in New York (1844), by Jonathan Slick, Esq., pseudonym of Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens: “There is no cheating that old coot, he’s wide awake as a night hawk.”

And we found this early example referring to an old man who isn’t quite so wide awake: “Yet the silly old coot couldn’t think of anything himself; and never was a husband so decidedly hen-pecked, and at the same time in such blissful ignorance of it, as this same gentleman” (from Female Life Among the Mormons, 1855, an anonymous work often attributed to Maria Ward, pseudonym of Elizabeth Cornelia Woodcock Ferris).

Finally, here’s an example of a female “coot,” from a March 30, 2020, story on Fox News in Seattle about a 90-year-old woman who survived Covid-19:

“Her daughter Neidigh said, ‘She’s one stubborn old coot (laughs).’ Her mother chimed in, ‘I’d admit I’m stubborn and I’m a fighter and I have a lot to live for and a lot of things I want to do.’ ”

As for “geezer” used to mean an old man, we discussed the usage in a 2018 post about the different senses of “geezer” and “geyser” in the US and the UK.

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