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Wooden Spoon Award: a bit more

Posted by James Briggs on April 13, 2001

In Reply to: Wooden Spoon Award posted by R. Berg on April 13, 2001

: : How did the custom of awarding a wooden spoon to a losing competitor originate ? (not that I've been awarded one !)

: : A popular tree-based kitchen implement to anyone who gets it wrong !

: The Oxford English Dictionary comes to the rescue:

: Wooden spoon: a spoon made of wood; spec. 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.

: 'At Yale, formerly, the student who took the last appointment in the Junior Exhibition; later, the most popular student in a class' ("Cent. Dict.").

: 1803 "Gradus ad Cantab." . . . Wooden Spoon, for wooden heads: . . . the lowest of the Junior Optimes. 1820 BYRON "Juan" . . . 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). 1858 EARL MALMESBURY "Mem." . . . The 'wooden spoon' which is given to the Minister in the House of Commons who has been in the fewest divisions.

To get the wooden spoon is now a prize for finishing last in a sporting event or other competition. It derives from a Cambridge University custom of presenting such a spoon to the person last in the Maths Tripos. In 1811 there were three classes of Honours degree; the first were called Wranglers and were said to be born with golden spoons in their mouths. The second were Senior Optimes and had silver spoons in their mouths. The third type were Junior Optimes and were born with lead spoons; the last Junior Optime was called the Wooden spoon. Those without Honours were either meritorious, in the Gulf, or just one of the Many.