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12 Scholarly Takes on Whether or Not the 13th Century Song "Sumer is Icumen in" Is About Deer Farts

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Scholars argue about the darndest things. Some debate big, thorny questions: the ethics of human gene editing, the mind-body problem, God. Others rock the boat by probing more esoteric subjects, like the meaning of medieval song lyrics. Especially lyrics that may reference deer farts.

“Sumer is Icumen in,” or the “Cuckoo Song,” is one of the oldest songs in the English language. Composed around the 1260s, the piece joyously rings in the arrival of warmer weather. It’s been popular in England for centuries: It is the first entry in Richard Thompson’s album 1000 Years of Popular Music; it has been the subject of countless parodies (including a doozy by Ezra Pound); and it was sung by hundreds of performers during the opening ceremonies of the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Its staying power is no mystery. Just listen! It’s a jaunty earworm that burrows into your brain.

Sumer is icumen in (Summer has come in)
Lhude sing cuccu (Loudly sing, cuckoo!)
Groweþ sed (Seeds are growing)
And blowe med (The meadow is blooming)
And springþ þe wde nu (And wood growth is new)
Sing cuccu (Sing cuckoo!)
Awe bleteþ after lomb (The ewe bleats after her lamb)
Ihouþ after calue cu (The cow lows after her calf)
Bulluc sterteþ (The bull leaps)
Bucke uerteþ (The buck farts (?)/cavorts (?))
Murie sing cuccu (Merrily sing cuckoo)
Cuccu cuccu (cuckoo, cuckoo)
Wel singes þu cuccu (Well sing you, cuckoo!)
Ne swik þu nauer nu (Never stop now)
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu (Sing, cuckoo, now. Sing, cuckoo)
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu (Sing, cuckoo. Sing cuckoo)

The trouble with Middle English poems is that a morass of archaic spellings and defunct words makes understanding each line difficult. For over 100 years, multiple scholars fired shots over the meaning of “Sumer is Icumen in,” and one controversy came to the fore: Does the "summer anthem" of 1260 contain a lyric about a deer ... farting? (We should also point out that another controversy is whether the “Bucke” mentioned is a deer or a goat, but the current consensus seems to tend toward deer.)

We dug up the academic papers, flipped through a few old reference books, and kept score on the debate. And while the debate may seem a bit silly, it’s a delightful example of the difficulties involved with translating Middle English—and a testament to the lengths to which scholars will go to get things right.

1. GREGORY H. ROSCOW // SCHOLAR OF OLD AND MIDDLE ENGLISH LITERATURE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF KEELE

“What more is there to say? The only crux is the word uertep … [I]s it 'farts' or something less earthy?”

(Points to both for uncertainty.) Team Farts: 1; Team Cavorts: 1  

2. THEODORE SILVERSTEIN // SCHOLAR OF MEDIEVAL LITERATURE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO

“The one crux in the text is the meaning of 'uerteth' in line 10, which all current editors gloss as ‘breaks wind.’ Such joy! … It is tempting, however, in the absence of contrary evidence, to ask whether this is not an early example of ‘vert’ meaning ‘to paw up’ or ‘to twist’ or ‘turn’ ... With respect then, may we not suggest ‘bullock leaps, buck cavorts.’”

Team Farts: 1; Team Cavorts: 2.

3. CARLETON F. BROWN // PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH LITERATURE AT BRYN MAWR COLLEGE

In his book English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century, Brown defines “uerten” as “break wind.”

Team Farts: 2; Team Cavorts: 2.

4. THE OXFORD ANTHOLOGY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE

Verteth means either “‘jumps, twists,’ from the Latin vertere, to turn, or ‘breaks wind, farts’; probably the former.”

Team Farts: 2; Team Cavorts: 3.

5. THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY

The OED cites “The Cuckoo Song” as the first example of the verb “to fart” in the English language.

Team Farts: 3; Team Cavorts: 3.

6. THEODORE HOEPFNER // SCHOLAR OF MIDDLE ENGLISH AT ALABAMA POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE (NOW AUBURN UNIVERSITY)

“It is easy to play sheep and follow the big ram over the cliff, letting the poor shepherd grieve and cry 'No!' afar off, and scholars do this in their explications of the phrase 'bucke verteth' in ‘Sumer is Icumen in.’ … [T]he word 'verteth' is derived not from the [Oxford English Dictionary’s] Old English 'feortan,' but from the Latin 'vertere,' to turn … frisks, cavorts, and prances ... I do not doubt that ‘verteth’ could be a south-of-England variant of 'farteth,' so far as its spelling is concerned, but not even the [Oxford English Dictionary], much less the array of anthologists, proves that this is true.”

Team Farts: 3; Team Cavorts: 4.

7. HUNTINGTON BROWN // SCHOLAR OF OLD ENGLISH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA

“Has [Hoepfner] never seen an ass or a colt in a pasture kick up his heels and heard him at the same time discharge a resounding salute from the fundamental orifice? Is it improbable that a stag in a deer park should manifest his well being in the same fashion? The explosion of energy in the combination of kick and crepitation is common enough among the larger four-footed beasts both in life and in literature.”

Team Farts: 4; Team Cavorts: 4.

8. ARTHUR K. MOORE // PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY

“The older anthologists sometimes made ludicrous attempts to gloss 'buck uerteth' in a way tolerable to Victorian sensibilities. Most recent editors have recognized what every farm boy knows—that quadrupeds disport themselves in the spring precisely as the poet has said. To the fourteenth century, the idea was probably inoffensive.”

Team Farts: 5; Team Cavorts: 4.

9. ESTON EVERETT ERICSON // SCHOLAR OF MIDDLE ENGLISH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA CHAPEL HILL

“Editorial prudishness has kept that fine little Middle English poem, the Cuckoo Song, out of many a school-book, all because the old poet was familiar with English barn-yards and meadows and in his poem recalled those sights and sounds. He knew that bullocks and bucks feel so good in the springtime that they can hardly contain themselves.”

Team Farts: 6; Team Cavorts: 4.

10. JOHN S. KENYON // PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AT HIRAM COLLEGE

“I venture to add corroboratory word to Mr. Ericson’s able and sane comments on ‘verteth’ in the ‘Cuckoo Song.’”

Team Farts: 7; Team Cavorts: 4.

11. JOHN TYREE FAIN // PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA

“[C]ommentators ... are building up a little literature around the flatulent buck of the old spring song…”

Team Farts: 8; Team Cavorts: 4.

12. HANS PLATZER // SCHOLAR OF ENGLISH HISTORICAL LINGUISTICS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF VIENNA

In 1995, Platzer wrote a 21-page paper called “On the Disputed Reading of ‘Uerteth’ in the ‘Cuckoo Song’” in the journal Neuphilologische Mitteilungen. It’s impossible to distill Platzer’s masterpiece to a single quote. But take our word for it: It’s a passionately detailed argument that surveys the etymological, phonological, and semantic history of words nobody has used in centuries—all in an effort to prove Team Farts wrong. We’re going to arbitrarily award Team Cavorts three points because it’s such an impressive Hail Mary pass.

FINAL SCORE

Team Farts: 8; Team Cavorts: 7.

Aye, the farts appear to have it. Literature, after all, is ripe with references to the intestine’s southerly winds. Chaucer’s "The Miller’s Tale" pokes fun at a man who’s “squaimous [squeamish] of fartng.” The dramatist John Heyward wrote, quite poetically, “What wind can there blow that doth not some man please? A fart in the blowing doth the blower ease.” Even Ben Johnson joined the fun. The second line of Act I in The Alchemist is: “I fart at thee.”

But to see where a living expert stood on the debate, I asked Rosemary Greentree, an expert in Middle English who has written on the fart-cavort controversy, where she stood. She leans toward Team Cavorts. “Verteth does seem to be a verb of motion,” she wrote in an email. “Certainly all the creatures mentioned are bounding about in warm spring sunshine and generally enjoying the new season.”

Yet, Greentree admits the word does raise eyebrows. “The idea of ‘farteth’ cannot be unthought,” she said. Rather, it’s possible that both sides have a point—perhaps the usage is a double entendre? “I still think that we are meant to think of all the meanings and laugh at all of them,” she said.

There you have it. Tie ballgame. If there are any Middle English experts, musicologists, or medieval lyric lovers who smell something fishy and would like to chime in, we’d be happy to update the score.

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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