Friday 2 February 2018

Sumer is icumen in, and the wind is passing ...

This morning, I was interviewed by Andrew Peach on his BBC Radio Berkshire breakfast show on the provenance of the word fart.  The QI Elves are doing a show in Reading and have published 10 facts about the town, asking for more obscure facts in the run up to their visit.

Apparently, the manuscript containing the oldest known song in the English language, Sumer Is Icumen In, was found in Reading Abbey. It contains the word fart.

The British Library has a good page about the manuscript, and I've pinched the picture:

Manuscript of Sumer Is Icumen In from the British Library
Manuscript of Sumer Is Icumen In, written around 1280 AD
In Middle English, the word is uerteþ - you can see it at the end of the third line. The thing that looks like a p is called "thorn" and is the same as the sound at the end of bath, and the u at the start of the word is actually pronounced more like v.  It would have sounded a bit like "ferteth". In the song, the ewe bleats after the lamb, the cow lows (moos) after the calf, the bullock stirs and - depending on the translation - either the stag or the goat farts. Life goes on as normal in springtime in the rural landscape of the 1200s.

You can hear Sumer Is Icumen In sung here (link in case you can't see it):

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, the word fart is found in Sanskrit.  People have been talking about farting - using a word similar to the modern English one - for a very long time.  Etymologically, English probably got the word from the Anglo-Saxons, who started to arrive in Britain in earnest in the 5th century.  English is basically a Germanic language with lots of embellishments from other languages for all sorts of historical reasons, and many of our basic words are from German (e.g., house, man, wife, and, land, hand ...).

The word fart is considered taboo by many.  It is certainly a humorous word and a humorous concept. We have many euphemisms for it, including pass windlet one off, and the Australian shoot a fairy.  

But has fart itself always been a taboo word?  There's an informative blog post on the subject from Strong Language which shows that it was used freely in situations as diverse as politics, poetry, and handbooks for children well into the 1700s.  My favourite fart poem (yes, I do have one!) was written by the Cavalier poet Sir John Suckling in the 1600s, and goes as follows:  

Love is the fart of every heart.
It pains a man when 'tis kept close
And others doth offend when 'tis let loose.

Do feel free to post your fart poetry and euphemisms below!



  2. I've always thought it was a pity that in the 17C English lost the distinction between fart 'break wind loudly' and fist /faɪst/ 'break wind quietly'. These are traceable to Proto-Indo-European as *perd- and *pezd- respectively.

    We also lost at the same time the lovely metaphor fart against 'deny what someone says in a loud voice'.

    1. There's clearly so much more to learn about words surrounding this concept!

    2. Ref. fist and fart, Swedish has nouns fis and fjärt, and verbs fisa and fjärta, so they could have come into different English dialects from different directions.

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