On first pass the expression WOODEN SPOON didn’t immediately ring any bells, but it sounded as if it was some sort of symbol for not doing so well. After sifting though my news archive search results, I quickly realized that although this expression is just about unheard of in the U.S., it is very widely used with this meaning in British Commonwealth countries, largely in reference to sports (e.g. ~50 sports hits for the month of August in one news archive I checked).<2008 “BA [[British Airways]] is under pressure to prove the value of its Olympic involvement. The airline's shareholders might reasonably have questioned the carrier's sponsorship if Team GB [[Great Britain]] had come back clutching a WOODEN SPOON rather than 19 gold medals.”—The Sunday Telegraph London, 24 August>
After looking the expression up, I realized that I had seen its original meaning discussed in a book I received as a Christmas present last year, but I hadn’t made the connection (and how soon they forget). The book I saw it in was The Indian Clerk (2007), by David Leavitt, an historical novel on the amazing story of the Indian math prodigy Ramanujan (1887-1920) who, lacking any formal education in advanced mathematics, had essentially reinvented much of it on his own. When he sent the famous Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy (1877–1947) an envelope containing a list of mathematical theorems he had come up with, Hardy and his colleagues realized that although many were known, to their astonishment some were entirely new and in particular one important one was directly related to Hardy’s current research in number theory. Needless to say Ramanujan was invited to Cambridge from India and with his unschooled and unorthodox approach proved to be one of the great intuitive mathematicians of all time. Tragically, he contracted tuberculosis and died at the age of 33. I found the book a very interesting window on the life of the Cambridge elite and its dons, although I do think the author overdid the explicit homosexuality aspect (Hardy was gay and Ramanujan wasn’t). From his concentration on this particular aspect of campus life he made it appear as if every second person at Cambridge was having a gay tryst, which is fine with me, it’s just that I think he lingered a bit to long on this particular aspect and provided more detail than anyone had a need to know, which I would have been just as disinterested in if it had involved straight sex. But I digress! WOODEN SPOON, believe it or not, does actually appear in this book (see excerpt below).
WOODEN SPOON : Its use today is jocular as applied to a hypothetical/metaphorical trophy awarded to a competitor or team who finishes last in a competition; the booby prize.
The following probably contains more detail (and some repetition) than is necessary to explain the derivation of WOODEN SPOON, but I found the subject area so interesting that I’ll deviate from my usual Spartan response. (<;)
WOODEN SPOON derives from an old tradition at Cambridge University, which was first appeared in print in 1803 (see quote below), but which dates back to late 18th century. The WOODEN SPOON was the award given to the student who scored lowest in the Junior Optimes, which was the lowest of the three levels of examinations known as the ‘Tripos’ (1st class: Wrangler; 2nd class: Senior Optimes; 3rd class: Junior Optimes) for the B.A. degree in mathematics. Later, other Tripos were created for other majors (e.g. classics in 1824; moral sciences in 1851, theology, law. . .). The WOODEN SPOON was also later known as the WOODEN WEDGE after philologist Hensleigh Wedgwood who took last in the first classical Tripos of 1824. In the early 20th century, the system of publicly disclosing the student’s rankings in the Tripos (and thus the above honors or jovial wooden spoon dishonor) was discontinued and the form of the exams in mathematics, which had originally required great preparation, tutoring, and rote memorization – considered a “colossal waste of time” by eminent Cambridge mathematicians of the day – was finally revised and Cambridge students are still tested on them today.
A word on the word TRIPOS (capitalized and not): a) Originally the bachelor of arts inquisitor chosen (for his quick wit) to dispute, quiz, argue, toy in a humorous or satirical style, with the candidates for degrees at the Commencement ceremony. The word ‘tripos’ derives from the three-legged stool on which he sat as he quizzed the candidates. b) A set of humorous verses, originally composed by the ‘Tripos’, and (till 1894) published at Commencement after his office was abolished (in full, tripos verses. c) The list of candidates qualified for the honor degree in mathematics, originally printed on the back of the paper containing these verses (in full, tripos list); the honor classifications (see above) in which candidates are grouped in the final examination.
Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary had to say under the adjective WOODEN:
7) WOODEN SPOON: A spoon made of wood; specifically one presented by custom at Cambridge to the last of the Junior Optimes, i.e. the lowest of those taking honours in the Mathematical Tripos; hence, this position in the examination, or the person who takes it. Also in extended use, referring to the lowest of a list or set in other connexions. Hence wooden-spooner, -spoonist, a competitor who is awarded the ‘wooden spoon’; a loser.
The following is a quote from The Indian Clerk (2007) by David Leavitt, pages 24-25:
___________________________And what was the mathematical tripos? Reduced to its skeleton, it was the exam that all mathematics students at Cambridge were obliged to take, and had been obliged to take since the late eighteenth century. The word itself referred to the three-legged stool on which, in olden times, the contestants would sit as they and their examiners “wrangled” over points of logic. Now a century and a half had gone by, and still the tripos tested the applied mathematics that had been current in 1782. The highest scorers on the exam were still classed as “wranglers,” then ranked by score, the very highest being deemed the “senior wrangler.” After the wranglers came the “senior optimes” and the “junior optimes.” Much ceremony attended the ritual reading of the names and scores, the honors list, which took place annually at the Senate House on the second Tuesday in June. To have any future in mathematics at Cambridge, you had to score among the top ten wranglers. To be named senior wrangler guaranteed you a fellowship or, if you chose not to pursue an academic career, a lucrative post in government or law. Whitehead [[Alfred North, 1861–1947, English philosopher and mathematician]] his year had been fourth wrangler, Russell [[Bertrand, 1872–1970, English philosopher, mathematician, and author]] seventh.
The tripos had something of the quality of a sporting event. Wagers preceded it, revels followed. The third week in June, no man in Cambridge was as famous as the senior wrangler, whose photograph street vendors and newsagents sold, and whom undergraduate aspirants and girls followed through the street, asking for his autograph. Starting in the 1890s women were allowed to take the examination, though their scores didn’t count, and when in 1890, a woman beat the senior wrangler, no less worthy an organ than the New York Times reported her astonishing victory.
Some, generally those who had no personal experience of it, thought the tripos rather fun. O. B., [[Oscar Browning (1837–1923), English writer, historian]] for instance. A historian by inclination and profession, he adored pomp of any kind, and therefore could not understand why Hardy [[Godfrey Harold, 1877–1947, English mathematician]] should object so vociferously to what for him was just a nice piece of Cambridge pageantry. In particular of O. B.—he loved the wooden spoon. Each year on degree day, when the poor fellow who had got the lowest score of all—the last of the junior optimes—knelt before the vice-chancellor, his friends would lower down to him from the Senate House roof an immense spoon, five feet long, elaborately hued and emblazoned with the insignia of his college as well as bits of comic verse in Greek. . . The fellow would then carry the spoon off with him into the distance with as much pathos and equanimity as he could muster. For the rest of his life, he would be know as the year’s wooden spoon.
An interesting legend has it that Lord Kelvin (William Thomson, 1824–1907, English physicist and mathematician) after whom the base unit of temperature, the kelvin was named]] was so confident that he had come in number one in the tripos, that he asked his servant to run to the Senate House and check who had come in second. The servant returned and informed him, ‘You, sir!’ It is said that a question on the exam required the students to write a proof of a theorem which Kelvin himself as a student had authored, earlier in the course. But unfortunately for Kelvin he hadn’t occurred to him to memorize the proof of his own theorem, and so he had to go through the time-consuming process of rethinking it from scratch on the exam. So, coming in in the top few was assured if you had a good memory and had memorized quite a bit of garbage, were fast, and had a fairly good head on your shoulders. But creativity wasn’t a necessary requirement. So some of the top Cambridge minds who had great success in later life, weren’t always among the supposed hotshots at the top of the list.
(quotes from Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources)<1803 “WOODEN SPOON, for WOODEN heads: the last of those candidates for the degree of A. B. who take honours: the lowest of the Junior Optime’s . After wooden spoon, follow the οι πολλοι. It is an old saying, that, Wranglers are born with gold spoons in their mouths, Senior Optime’s with silver, Junior Optime’s with WOODEN, . . .
WRANGLER,—(Senior Wrangler,)—the highest honour in the Schools. . . .
TRIPOS; a long piece of white and brown paper, like that on which the commonest ballads are printed, containing Latin hexameter verses, with the author’s name, &c. The Cambridge TRIPOS, it has been conjectured, was probably in old time delivered like the Terræ Filius [[of Oxford]] from a Tripod, a three-legged stool, in humble imitation of the Delphic Oracle.” .”—Gradus ad Cantabrigiam: A Dictionary of Terms Academical and Colloquial, or Cant, which are used at the University of Cambridge, pages 137-138>
<1820 “Sure my invention must be down at zero, / And I grown one of many ‘WOODEN SPOONS’ / Of verse (the name with which we Cantabs please / To dub the last of honours in degrees).”— Don Juan by Byron, canto III. cx>
<1858 “The ‘WOODEN SPOON’ which is given to the Minister in the House of Commons who has been in the fewest divisions.”—Memoir (1884) of Earl Malmesbury, II. page 127>
<1883 “There was no opposition to the presentation of the time-honoured ‘WOODEN SPOON.’”—The Standard (London), 20 June, page 2/7>
<1900 “The international matches . . . have now all been played, . . . Ireland, who won the championship last year . .. have only 1 point, and take the ‘WOODEN SPOON.’”—Western Gazette (England), 19 March, page 8/2>
<1927 “Champions and WOODEN SPOONISTS of the Isthmian League last season were opposed on the Civil Service ground at Chiswick.”—Daily Express (England), 23 March, page 13/3>
<1954 “Somerset were WOODEN-SPOONERS last summer and will be so again.”—Ashes Crown Year by J. Fingleton, page 275>
<1973 “4BH slips to fourth place in the five station market, with perennial WOODEN SPOONERS, 4BK, only 2000 listeners behind.”—National Review (Melbourne), 31 August, page 1442/3>>
<1975 “England won the British soccer championship . . . with Wales, once again the WOODEN SPOONISTS.”—Globe & Mail (Toronto), 26 May, page S5/1>
<1990 “The Bank of England takes the WOODEN SPOON for central-bank independence.”—The Economist, 19 February
<1997 “The Blue Brazil have been tagged the worst team in Scotland but Hutchie reckons the WOODEN SPOON will end up somewhere else this season.”—Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland), 21 December>
<2002 “The coaches expect the WOODEN SPOON to go to the competition's new boys Victoria Giants . . .”—AAP Sports News (Australia), 30 September>
<2005 “Wales and Ireland are chasing a Grand Slam showdown. England and Italy meet to avoid the embarrassment of the ‘WOODEN SPOON.’”—Associated Press Worldstream, 10 March>
<2008 “. . . meretricious oily rubbish, sickeningly sentimental children, wishy-washy abstracts and landscapes the victims of aesthetic drift; WOODEN SPOON stuff, all of it . . .”—Evening Standard (London), 25 July>
Ken G – September 3, 2008