wooden spoon

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wooden spoon

Post by Ken Greenwald » Thu Sep 04, 2008 8:02 am

I’ve got a pile of words and phrases languishing on my hard-drive. Some are partially completed responses to Wordwizard questions I just never got around to finishing (typical as I just noticed is ‘three cheers’ dating from June of 2006) and others are just a listing of a word or phrase and the sentence and source in which it was found in the course of my reading. I think one of God’s greatest blunders was giving us a day with only 24 hours, but I guess I shouldn’t blame my shortcomings on others. Anyway, I may never get to the bottom of my pile because I tend to try to discuss current Wordwizard questions first, then later get back to choosing the ones from my heap that are fairly recent and, at least in my opinion, most interesting. Of course, an obvious solution would be to write shorter responses. But I just don’t have it in me. So, continuing in the spirit of my unworkable plan to finish the unfinishable, here is one from near the top of the pile pertaining to the most recent Olympics:
<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>
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).

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 [1858]: 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.
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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.
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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.
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<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>
(quotes from Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources)
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Ken G – September 3, 2008
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Re: wooden spoon

Post by Phil White » Sun Sep 07, 2008 8:40 pm

And following the "medaled" and "podiumed" discussions recently, there is also evidence on the web of "wooden spooned":
Although times have been tough for these former heavyweights of the competition, they have not wooden spooned since the 80s and have generally made the top eight.
http://www.theroar.com.au/2008/04/26/wh ... e-raiders/
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Non sum felix lepus

wooden spoon

Post by Neil Shaddick » Fri Mar 21, 2014 1:43 am

May I ask what would be a current American idiom equivalent to 'the wooden spoon' an expression I was searching by which I discovered Wordwizard: do you only have booby prizes in the States? Many thanks
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Re: wooden spoon

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Mar 21, 2014 2:25 am

Glad to have you join us, Neil!

Besides getting the wooden spoon, the booby prize, second prize or a runner-up prize, you can also make a bad bargain, get the short end of the stick or the bad end of the bargain, draw the short straw, come up short, and be given a white elephant or even a Trojan horse... all these idioms are current in the US, as well as being in more widespread use. In the US you can also be a day late and a dollar short, as well as coming late to the party and finding that the ship has sailed or the train has left the station.

Are there any New Zealand-specific expressions you know of that express a similar sense? I'm aware of only one other New Zealander being a (semi-)regular poster on this forum, so we don't get to hear much at Wordwizard concerning the English spoken in your part of the world -- more's the pity.
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Re: wooden spoon

Post by trolley » Fri Mar 21, 2014 3:19 am

I've never heard wooden spoon used that way. Sounds like what we'd call a "participation ribbon". When I was a kid we used to compete in athletics at school. A red ribbon was awarded for first place, (oddly enough)the blue ribbon was second place and third place got you a white one. Everyone else (aka the losers) got a green ribbon known as the participation ribbon. I think it was meant to make us feel good. "Thanks for trying." Believe me, no kid in his right mind strutted around sporting a puffed up chest full of green ribbons. Actually, the field used to be littered with green at the end of the meet. Although I understand it is highly unacceptable today, I got the wooden spoon many times as a youngster...I also got the hair brush, the yard-stick, and anything else that Mom could lay her hands on. It was a much simpler time.
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Re: wooden spoon

Post by Neil Shaddick » Fri Mar 21, 2014 7:47 am

Thank you both for your responses: faster than Fed Ex! In answer to your question Erik, the wooden spoon is one of a number of expressions that have died out in the UK but seem to have been preserved in aspic over here in New Zealand, a former dominion of Empire. As the thread on it on Wordwizard admirably explains it's an expression peculiar to Cambridge University, yet here, come Friday and the end of the staff meeting or briefing in any NZ school, there's the time-honoured ceremony of awarding the wooden spoon (and that's usually exactly what it is) to the staff member who made the most hilarious 'blue' (snafu) of the week. So that's the exact expression we use and as far as I'm aware there is no other. Another quick example: go into any household store in NZ and ask where the Manchester is, the assistant will point you in the direction of the linen, no problem because in the days of the Empire that's where it came from. And as far as NZ is concerned that's where it still comes from even though the labels on the sheets distinctly say 'Made in India' or China or The Philippines.
Ask the same question in the UK, they won't have a clue what you're talking about.
I can bore people to death on this subject - maybe not so fast on this forum! But what you get a lot of are these evocative distant echoes of the original settlers. The Irish "yous" as in the plural of the pronoun 'you' - see yous all later; that's standard colloquial NZ Eng (though frowned on by genteel society and I can't quite bring myself to use it even after being out here for 25 years. My kids say it all the time. Come to think of it, I've never heard that expression from the States - in a movie or on TV; what did you do to your Irish immigrants to stop them talking like that?!) The Scottish 'wee' of course is standard - give it a wee push. If you said that south of the border the English would laugh at you and say you'd been drinking too much scotch whisky; not here. Even Cornish hangs in here: going 'ninety to the dozen' originally referred to the specs of a Cornish steam engine that pumped 90,000 gallons of water for every 12 bushels of coal. I've heard that at a rugby game in Auckland of a player running as fast as he can toward the try line. Maori though is a bigger influence on our English now and we're increasingly aware and proud of the fact. So I must taihoa. Haere ra!
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Re: wooden spoon

Post by Bobinwales » Fri Mar 21, 2014 11:42 am

Good to hear from you Neil.

The Wooden Spoon is still awarded in Six Nations Rugby. Not that there is a physical spoon of course!

When I was 16, just over 50 years ago (stands in the corner quietly sobbing), I had a job in a department store, and that had a Manchester Department. But I have to say that I had not heard the term before I worked there and have never heard it since. My moiety, who hails from Leeds is not aware of it either.

I was interested to hear "Ninety to the dozen" and the explanation, around here it is "nineteen to the dozen".
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Signature: All those years gone to waist!
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Re: wooden spoon

Post by Wizard of Oz » Tue Mar 25, 2014 3:57 am

.. gidday Neil, kia ora, nau mai .. hope you stick around as I will have someone over our ditch rather than their ditch .. often need the support too just remind the English and Amlish speakers that Auslish and Kiwish speakers own the language too .. it's a great site to post so many things and not just about language .. are you a jafa ?? ..

.. incidently I had no probs understanding what you spoke of .. we still have shops here that have a sign denoting the Manchester Dept .. of course we don't have chilly bins, jandals, jutter bars and the like but they make sense ..

.. trolley you are spot on about the wooden spoon .. it simply refers to coming last .. Erik is way wide of the mark with his list of expressions .. the term has even been turned into a noun where a team, for example, is referred to as the wooden spooners .. Neil I suppose we are too close because the wooden spoon is widely awarded in Aus ..

WoZ in Aus
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Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: wooden spoon

Post by Shelley » Sat Apr 26, 2014 6:13 pm

trolley wrote:. . . I got the wooden spoon many times as a youngster...I also got the hair brush, the yard-stick, and anything else that Mom could lay her hands on. It was a much simpler time.
Hah! Me, too, trolley. Although, to be honest, it was merely the threat of the wooden spoon that sent us screaming to our rooms. She'd chase us upstairs, waving the spoon around in front of her -- it never connected, in my memory!
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Re: wooden spoon

Post by Phil White » Sat Apr 26, 2014 10:10 pm

Yep, agree with most of yous. The wooden spoon really denotes coming last, not second or anywhere else. And the phrase is still in widespread use throughout the UK.

Those of you in the UK of a certain age will also remember the "Crackerjack pencil". A friend of mine used to refer to his amorous advances being rejected with "but we can be good friends" as "getting the Crackerjack pencil".

As far as the plural "yous" is concerned, that is still fit and well in the UK and living on Merseyside.

And I'm not sure that "wee" is confined to Scotland to the degree you suggest. I suspect it is ubiquitous in Scotland, but still frequently used in the north of England. I, as a mongrel Southerner, use it regularly, but I suspect that may be an affectation...
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Re: wooden spoon

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Apr 26, 2014 10:44 pm

There's no 'suspect' about it! ;-)
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Re: wooden spoon

Post by Wizard of Oz » Wed Jun 11, 2014 6:20 am

Phil White wrote:And I'm not sure that "wee" is confined to Scotland to the degree you suggest. I suspect it is ubiquitous in Scotland, but still frequently used in the north of England. I, as a mongrel Southerner, use it regularly, but I suspect that may be an affectation...
.. Phil if you were in NZ you would find support in the South for your use of "wee" .. the south of the South Island was settled by the good men of Scotland and the current use of "wee" by people from Dunedin, Invercargill and like places is no doubt a linguistic hangover from their heritage ..

WoZ who loves the South
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Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

End of topic.
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