Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Jumping Frog: A Shocking Tale of Scholarly Plagiarism


I’ve been waiting for May 13, Jumping Frog Day, to roll round, so keen am I to relate a dastardly tale of plagiarism by a renowned teacher of ancient Greek. In his Introduction to Greek Prose Composition with Exercises (1876, but still in print), A. Sidgwick, who announced himself on the title page to be ‘Assistant-master at Rugby’,  included a text for translation into ancient Greek entitled ‘The Athenian and the Frog’.

One man beats another in a competition to test whose frog can jump further by secretly feeding the opponent’s frog small bits of stone or shot to weigh him down.

Sidgwick had taken every detail of the tale, besides substituting an Athenian and a Boeotian for two men in California, from Mark Twain’s short story Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog. The first of many versions was published in the New York Saturday Press in 1866. Its later incarnations were published under the title The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.


When Twain met Sidgwick in 1899, the pedagogue admitted that exercise XXI on p. 116 of his famous textbook was borrowed from Twain. He had seen no need to say so in print.

Twain was disappointed, but not because he hadn't been credited. When he'd first heard about the exercise in Sidgwick, he had inferred that there was an original Aesopic fable of this kind. Moreover, he decided it was exciting proof of the universality of frog-jumping competitions across human history, or at least in both ancient Greece and modern California, and published this theory in The North American Review,  No. 449 (April 1894).

Sadly, there is no such ancient Greek fable extant, although maybe one was told on Seriphos, home to a particularly fine species of Anura Neobatrachia, portrayed on the island’s ancient coinage. Sidgwick however provided an elegant Greek translation of his own English text to help teachers. Unfortunately I was unaware of this when I composed my own version in 1977 at Nottingham Girls' High School, for which I recall Miss Reddish gave me an Alpha minus bracket minus.  

Apparently the world record frog jump was achieved in 1986 by Rosie the Ribeter, who jumped 21 feet, 5 and three quarter inches. But I still don’t know why Frog Jumping Day is celebrated on May 13th. Any suggestions would be gratefully received.



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