Monday 18 September 2023

First Wrangler and Wooden Spoon

First Wrangler and Wooden Spoon

Growing up in Texas we knew of the word wrangler as a ranch hand, someone who worked with cattle.  It would have seemed both strange and yet somehow appropriate if I had looked up the word in a dictionary and found, “a person engaging in a lengthy and complicated quarrel or dispute.“ 

Years later when I read about brilliant English mathematicians who had been “Senior Wranglers”, the top person in their year on the written mathematical examinations, the Mathematical Tripos, I had no idea what the relation was.   “ By way of example, in 1854, the Tripos consisted of 16 papers spread over eight days, totaling 44.5 hours. The total number of questions was 211. It was divided into two parts, with Part I (the first three days) covering more elementary topics.”  The successful graduates were divided into three groups, the Wranglers, 

The first known appearance of  “Wrangler” in print seems to have been in 1751, in a pamphlet (Friendly and Honest Advice of an Old Tory to the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge) circulated around Cambridge.  He addresses the term as if it might not be known to his readers outside Cambridge., “When the scholars take their first Degree in Arts, they are distinguished by their different improvements, by several marks of Honour and Disgrace.” The mark of the top performing students was “Wrangler”, the title derived from the original system of “oral disputations”.  The recognition of being the highest scorer led to the title “Senior Wrangler”, an event to be celebrated and feasted by the members of his (or her) College.

“Philippa Fawcett was educated at Bedford College, London (now Royal Holloway) and Newnham College, Cambridge which had been co-founded by her mother.   In 1890, she became the first woman to obtain the top score in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams. The results were highly publicised, with the top scorers receiving great acclaim. Her score was 13% higher than the second highest, but she did not receive the title of Senior Wrangler (Geoffrey T. Bennett in 1890), as only men were then ranked and women were listed separately. Women had been allowed to take the Tripos since 1880, after Charlotte Angas Scott was unofficially ranked as eighth wrangler. When the women's list was announced, Fawcett was described as "above the senior wrangler". No woman was officially awarded the first position until Ruth Hendry in 1992.” *Wik

Another term developed at the examinations went to the lowest scoring person who passed the exam,the last name before the line separating the successful from the “Gulph”, the unsuccessful examines.  To this lowest of the high, was awarded the title (and often an actual) Wooden Spoon.  The name appears somewhat widely in English speaking nations for an individual or team that has come last in a competition. 

The First written record of “Senior Wrangler” in print seems to be in 1791, and the “Wooden Spoon” in 1793.

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