Wooden spoon (award)

A wooden spoon is a spoon made from wood, usually given to an individual or team which has come last in a competition, but sometimes also to runners-up. Examples range from the academic to sporting and more frivolous events. The term is of British origin and has spread to other Commonwealth countries.

Wooden spoon at the University of Cambridge

The wooden spoon was presented originally at the University of Cambridge as a kind of booby prize awarded by the students to the man who achieved the lowest exam marks but still earned a third-class degree (a junior optime) in the Mathematical Tripos.[1][2] The term "wooden spoon" or simply "the spoon" was also applied to the recipient,[3] and the prize became quite notorious:

And while he lives, he wields the boasted prize
Whose value all can feel, the weak, the wise;
Displays in triumph his distinguish'd boon,
The solid honours of the Wooden Spoon[4]:98

The spoons themselves, actually made of wood, grew larger, and in latter years measured up to five feet long. By tradition, they were dangled in a teasing way from the upstairs balcony in the Senate House, in front of the recipient as he came before the Vice-Chancellor to receive his degree, at least until 1875 when the practice was specifically banned by the University.[5][6]

The lowest placed students earning a second-class (senior optime) or first-class degree (wrangler) were sometimes known as the "silver spoon" and "golden spoon" respectively.[3] In contrast, the highest-scoring male student was named the "senior wrangler". Students unfortunate enough to place below the wooden spoon, by achieving only an Ordinary degree, were given a variety of names depending on their number.[4]:284 In the 1860s about three-quarters of the roughly 400 candidates did not score enough to be awarded honours, and were known as poll men.[7]

The custom dates back at least to the late 18th century, being recorded in 1803,[6] and continued until 1909.[8] From 1910 onwards the results have been given in alphabetical rather than score order, and so it is now impossible to tell who has come last, unless there is only one person in the lowest class.[6]

Last award

The last wooden spoon

The last wooden spoon was awarded to Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse, an oarsman of the Lady Margaret Boat Club of St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1909 at the graduation ceremony in the University's Senate House. The handle is shaped like an oar and inscribed with an epigram in Greek which may be translated as follows:

In Honours Mathematical,
This is the very last of all
The Wooden Spoons which you see here;
O you who see it, shed a tear.


This wooden object is the last souvenir of the competitive examinations in mathematics. Look upon it, and weep.

The last spoon to be awarded is now in the possession of St. John's College, and another is kept at Selwyn College library. From 8 June 2009 to 26 June 2009, St. John's College held an exhibition of the five surviving wooden spoons in College hands, from St. John's (the last one, dating from 1909), Selwyn's (1906),[5] Emmanuel's (1889) and Corpus Christi's (1895 and 1907) in its library to mark the centenary of the "awarding" of the last spoon of all.[9] There are five known wooden spoons in private hands.[6]

In sport

Rugby union

How the Cambridge wooden spoon idea came to be used in rugby union is not exactly known, but in the early years of what is now the Six Nations Championship there were many Cambridge graduates playing, so they may have attempted to preserve the concept after the last one was awarded in 1909. It is certain, in any case, that the tradition first arose in Cambridge and rugby adopted and perpetuated the tradition. In 1894 the South Wales Daily Post remarked that within the Home Nations Championships the Ireland-Wales match has been to decide which team should be recipient of the ignominious Wooden Spoon';[10] one of the earliest mentions of the term within rugby union.

Australian and New Zealand sports

The term is commonly used in Australian and New Zealand sporting competitions, most notably in the major Australian rules, soccer and rugby football leagues (such as the AFL, the A-League, NRL, Super Rugby and ITM Cup) and refer to the club positioned last on the league table at the end of the season.

AFL Wooden Spoons

National Rugby League

Big Bash League (cricket)

The Sydney Thunder won the wooden spoon in the first three Big Bash League seasons between the 2011–12 and 2013–14 seasons,[11][12] before Brisbane Heat became the first team other than the Thunder to finish last in the eight-team competition, in 2014–15.[13]


A wooden spoon, also known as the "anti-slam", is sometimes spoken about in tennis. It is described as the worst possible outcome in a tournament, applying to the player for whom the following scenario becomes true:

Some notable Grand Slam "wooden spooners" include, among others, Goran Ivanišević (1995 Australian Open), Mary Pierce (2002 Australian Open), Marat Safin (2004 US Open), Ana Ivanovic (2010 Wimbledon Championships) and Rafael Nadal (2016 Australian Open).[16][17]

See also


  1. Grose, Francis (1811). Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Entry: "Wranglers". Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  2. Stray, Christopher (2012). "The Wooden Spoon: Rank (dis)order in Cambridge 1753–1909". In Feingold, Mordecai. The History of Universities XXVI/1. Retrieved 6 August 2015.
  3. 1 2 A Brace of Cantabs. (pseudonym) (1824). Gradus ad Cantabrigiam. J. Hearne.
  4. 1 2 Socius (1823). The Cambridge Tart. London: Smith. p. 98.
  5. 1 2 Stephen J. Cowley. "Cambridge Mathematical Tripos: Wooden Spoons". Retrieved 27 July 2009.
  6. 1 2 3 4 Jonathan Holmes (1998). "Queens' College Cambridge: 'A Queens' Wooden Spoon'". Retrieved 27 July 2009.
  7. Galton, Francis (1869). Hereditary Genius-An Enquiry into its Laws and Consequences. p. 17.
  8. "University of Cambridge Exhibitions: "In honours mathematical, the very last of all: Cambridge Wooden Spoons"". 27 May 2009. Retrieved 27 July 2009.
  9. http://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/cms_misc/media/library/spoonsbooklet.pdf
  10. Godwin, Terry (1984). The International Rugby Championship 1883–1893. Willow Books. ISBN 0-00-218060-X.
  11. Jacques Kallis targeted to help Sydney Thunder rumble in the Big Bash League, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 April 2014
  12. Big Bash League 2012–13: From blunder to Thunder, ESPN Cricinfo, 11 April 2013
  13. Dorries, Ben (21 January 2015). "Andrew Flintoff declares Brisbane Heat's underperforming players to blame for wooden spoon campaign". The Courier Mail. Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  14. mikero.com – The tennis anti-grand-slam
  15. Wooden-Spoon Theory Explained
  16. "Fifth time unlucky for Murray as Djokovic continues Australian Open dominance". The Roar. 1 February 2016. Retrieved 1 February 2016.
  17. Bednall, Jai (1 February 2016). "Rafael Nadal wins Australian Open 'wooden spoon'". news.com.au. Retrieved 1 February 2016.

External links

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