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A bird by any other name

Now comes a good note from Rachel Willcox, who chides me for writing Chilcoot instead of the correct Chilkoot (up in the Clondyke), and this cheers me a good deal. Well, I had been mooning around all morning about the "Actual Demonstration (Simulated)" that I had watched on the television the night before , and I needed something to spruce me up and stop my pining away. I offer no excuse for abusing Chilkoot, but it is easy to explain: we folks here in Maine don't know a coot from a hole in the ground. We speak of coots to be sure, but our coot is a scoter.

Since earliest times, our sea scoter has sustained the aborigines and the settlers, and occupies a substantial place in the lore of down-Maine. The true coot is not a duck, although it swims well enough, and likes bogs and marshes and small ponds with a lot of reeds.We have the true coot here, but I never heard a Mainer call him a coot -- he is the mud hen, the marsh hen, the meadow hen, the pond crow, and maybe a half dozen other things. The sea scoter, which is a duck, will not fly over the land, and to get from one cove to the next, a matter of a hundred yards, he will fly 25 miles south, turn the point, and fly 25 miles back.

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This gives you some idea why we have in our coastal lingo the expression "as crazy as a coot." To speak that correctly, and say "as crazy as a scoter," would come out meaningless here. Our coot is the scoter. Being a sea bird, our coot appreciates the meaner tempers of the Atlantic, and is happiest in rain, fog, easterlies, and onshore commotions. The west wind, which is our pleasantest and always docile compared to others, sends our coot into some kind of uneasiness, and his customary oddities are aggravated by it.Hence, if you wish to describe somebody who strikes you as more than just plain crazy, you add "crazy as a coot in a west wind." That's our superlative.

However, to be likened to a coot is not always negative. Coot is our word for a kindly gentleman of advanced years who likes his neighbors, particularly children, and gets along just fine with everybody. We have a number of similar terms in Maine speech, all of them as synonym for "person," but not all of them as pleasantly construed as coot. A joker doesn't need to be friendly. A party remains unidentified. We use "character" somewhat as the French use "type." And so on, but mention a coot, and we assume he is congenial. Example: "There's an old coot lives down to the hah-b'h who can quick enough show you how to mash a head."

Glossary: Mash, to knit or tie twine, as in making a net; mesh.m

Head, the knitted (mashed) twine that is tied into lobster traps to guide the delicious creatures from the ocean into the bedroom.m

Glossary: Bedroom, that compartment in a lobster trap which endeth all.m

As I explain such things, it occurs to me we Mainers do well to have a variety of words for kookiness.

Any coastal housewife can turn out a coot stew with dumplings that is worthy of close attention. In Maine lore we have a standard recipe for coot which has two principal endings: 1 -- put an ax in the pot with the coot and when you can stick a fork in the ax the coot is done. 2 -- put in a brick, and when the fork will stick in the brick throw the coot away and eat the brick. No wonder I wrote Chilcoot.

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