A wooden spoon is an award that is given to an individual or team who/which has come last in a competition. Examples range from the academic to sporting and more frivolous events. The term is of British origin and has spread to other Commonwealth countries outside North America.
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. The term "wooden spoon" or simply "the spoon" was also applied to the recipient, 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: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.
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. 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.: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.
The custom dates back at least to the late 18th century, being recorded in 1803, and continued until 1909. 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.
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, with an earlier version being kept at the 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),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. There are five known wooden spoons in private hands.
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; one of the earliest mentions of the term within rugby union.
The term is commonly used in Australian and New Zealand sporting competitions, most notably in the major Australian rules, soccer, rugby league and rugby union leagues (such as the AFL, the A-League, NRL, Super Rugby and ITM Cup) and refers to the club positioned last on the league table at the end of the season.
Sydney Thunder won the wooden spoon in the first three Big Bash League seasons between the 2011-12 and 2013-14 seasons, before Brisbane Heat became the first team other than the Thunder to finish last in the eight-team competition, in 2014-15.
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 occurs:
Won by the player who is defeated in the first round by a player who is defeated in the second round, who is defeated in the third round and so forth, until the final of a given tournament.
Some notable Grand Slam "wooden spooners" include, among others, Goran Ivani?evi? (1995 Australian Open), Mary Pierce (2002 Australian Open), Marat Safin (2004 US Open), Caroline Wozniacki (2007 French Open), Ana Ivanovic (2010 Wimbledon Championships), Rafael Nadal (2016 Australian Open), Jelena Jankovi? (2016 French Open), Camila Giorgi (2016 Wimbledon), Naomi Osaka (2017 French Open), and Je?ena Ostapenko (2018 French Open - she was the defending champion, having won in 2017).
Greg Rusedski (1994 and 1995 US Open, 2006 Wimbledon Championships), Nicolás Lapentti (1996 French Open, 1997 and 2009 Wimbledon Championships) and Julien Benneteau (2014 and 2016 US Open, 2016 French Open) can claim three wooden spoons throughout their career.
In Major League Soccer, the last place team in the overall standings is generally considered as the "wooden spoon champion". However, unlike other Wooden Spoon awards, there is an actual "trophy" for the award. Before the start of the 2016 MLS season, the Independent Supporters Council decided to create an official "trophy" for the lowest place team in the league, as a complement to the Supporters' Shield which the ISC also manages. The trophy is passed to the "winning" team at the annual ISC Conference, and the holders of the Spoon must possess the spoon for the entire following season. At the end of the year, every group awarded the Wooden Spoon are allowed to do what they will with the trophy. The Chicago Fire were the "winner" of the inaugural 2015 wooden spoon and their supporters had the responsibility of creating the first spoon.
Beginning with the 2017 MLS season, the wooden spoon was renamed the Anthony Precourt Memorial Wooden Spoon, after the owner of the Columbus Crew, who at the time was attempting to move the franchise to Austin.
The Chicago Fire hold the record for most wooden spoons since its inception, "winning" the award twice in 2015, and 2016. This is also the only time since its inception that a club has earned this title two seasons in a row.
The current holder of the wooden spoon following the 2019 campaign is expansion team FC Cincinnati.
In the Cambridge and Oxford Bumps races, a crew who get bumped each day (thus moving down four places) are awarded spoons. This is probably related to the use of wooden spoons as a booby prize in the University of Cambridge Mathematical Tripos.