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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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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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