Icon of the Week: The jargon of ‘Summer Eights’

by Clara Hartley and Helen Edwards | May 27, 2024


You’re a novice to rowing. No, not a Novice, just… a novice. Someone who has no clue, someone who hangs around Summer Eights for the Pimms and the occasional barbequed delicacy. The incessant rowing conversation from hall lunches has carved a space in your mind – Torpids; Tech suits; Blades – but the language itself remains at best silly, at worst frustrating, in its inaccessibility.


Setting these Oxonian rowing jibes aside, however, this inaccessible language is distinctly… oh…  Oxonian. Though it belongs to the rowing community too, the world in which Oxford and rowing overlaps, and thus the jargon which preserves this world, already garners a reputation for elitism. Aside from Oxford, and, lest we forget, Cambridge, Bumps racing with boats of four (Quads, to be precise), is the type of race which Eton College and Shrewsbury School use for their inter-house rowing tournaments. Despite the reputation which precedes it, rowing is undeniably one of the most popular sports – indeed, the most popular sport on a college level – in Oxford. 


What, then, is the appeal? The Cult of Rowing, tongue-in-cheek as this may be, is a tangible phenomenon to those who bike bleary-eyed to the boat-house for early morning training. It is just as much a tangible phenomenon, however, for the Pimms-drinking, Eights-watching, novice too. The appeal from both within and without the cult is, surely, this very tradition of jargon – not to mention the jargon of tradition – which, for four days in Hilary and four days in Trinity, turns friends into Rowers. With a capital ‘R’, that is. While a host of iconic details could be championed from the tradition of both Torpids and Eights, it is surely the format of the race itself which deserves its day in the sun. If you’ve ever stood among the crowds of Boathouse Island during the races and asked yourself, ‘What on earth am I watching?’, then we’ve chosen this Icon just for you.


Bumps (noun). A kind of rowing race where a number of competing boats chase each other in single file, aiming to catch up with the boat in front, without being caught by the boat behind. 


Bump (noun). When a boat catches up with the boat in front. 


Bump (verb). To catch up with the boat in front. It also works in the passive voice. For example: “Our boat was bumped by Trinity’s boat, what a shame!” 


Torpids (noun). Oxford’s intercollegiate bumps tournament that takes place every Hilary Term. 


Summer Eights (noun). Oxford’s intercollegiate bumps tournament that takes place over four days every Trinity Term. 


This form of race was established right here in Oxford in 1815. (Cambridge caught up with us in 1827. That’s caught up. Not bumped. Are you caught up now?) The first race was between two eight-men boats, one from Brasenose College, the other from Jesus College. It’s because the first race took place between boats of eight that the whole event is known as ‘Eights’. The tournament takes place over a series of several days, just like this weekend, and the starting order of each days’ race is based on the results of the previous day (and the starting order of the first day is based on the last day of the previous year). The distance between the boats is usually about one and a half boat-lengths. 


Although we’ve defined what Bumps is, you might at this point be picturing a cramped racing stretch, or boats crashing left-right-and-centre. Sheer carnage on the river. The rowing equivalent of the Grand National. Do not be alarmed, dear reader–it’s nowhere near as exciting as that! Whilst physical contact with another boat does count as a bump, actual collisions are not frequent. They’re dangerous, and what’s more, those boats are expensive! A boat can also bump the boat in front simply by drawing level with its bowball (the bit on the back of the boat that sticks out and acts as a buffer in case of crashing into banks, kayaks, swans, etc.). If your boat bumps the boat in front, then both boats pull over to the bank–their role in that race is done. This affects the starting order of the next race: if you bump, then you move up one place in the starting order (and if you get bumped, you move down one place). 


Wait, there’s more. If the boat in front of you bumps, meaning its crew and the crew in front of it pull over, then your boat is left chasing a boat that started not one, not two, but three boats ahead of you. Yikes. Bump to the power of two. 


Over-bump (noun; verb). When a boat catches up with the boat three boats ahead, after the boat one ahead of them bumped. The boat that has over-bumped moves up three places in the starting order.


In case you were wondering, yes, this logic continues onwards. If two boats in front of you both bump (thereby taking four boats in total out of the race), it is possible to double-over-bump, moving you five places in the starting order. If three boats in front of you bump, then it is possible to triple-over-bump. And so it goes. 


The crowning achievement for any crew partaking in Bumps is to climb to the top of the starting order, and earn the title ‘Head of the River’. In practice, this is only possible for crews that start high up in the order to begin with, so a more realistic goal for crews is to bump up (at least) one place on each of the tournament days. Do this, and you get blades. 


Blades (noun). Oars used in competitive rowing. 


Blades (proper noun). Crews are awarded Blades as a prize, which are typically crew colours and inscribed with the crew members’ names alongside the boats they bumped. These are what you see adorning the walls of College Bars. 


The ubiquity of rowing is what makes Bumps iconic. It’s iconically unavoidable, and whether or not such a sweeping truism is a positive facet to Oxford is for you – reader, Rower, novice – to decide. We’ve explained the jargon here, labouring over definitions and details of the rowing world, but ultimately Torpids and Eights have become, for the non-rowers present, an excuse for the mandatory Pimms and barbeque, alongside optional sunny weather. If it is in fact iconic in the most literal sense, Bumps should be considered so not for the tradition and mystique which surround it, but, rather,  for its ability to bring people together. 


Two’s a party, three’s a crowd – but for four days in Trinity we’ve got Eights, and we think that’s pretty iconic. Whether your hands are holding a sub-par barbequed burger, or covered in blisters, the atmosphere of Eights speaks for itself. So, we’ve tried to catch you up with the jargon (that’s just catch up, not bump), but, really, it doesn’t matter: it’s impossible not to get caught up in the spirit of Bumps.∎


Words by Clara Hartley and Helen Edwards. Image courtesy of Gareth Ardron Photography. Graphic courtesy of Natalie Hytiroglou.