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What the Nobel laureates did for us

19 February isn’t a great day, should you happen to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Chances are, you might meet your maker – Nobel laureates André Gide and Knut Hamsun both died on 19 February, in 1951 and 1952 respectively. And that’s before we widen the net to other Nobel Prizes (step forward André Frédéric Cournand, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and departed this world in 1988 – on, of course, 19 February.)

How did the Nobel Prizes come about? Alfred Nobel was allegedly dissatisfied with his potential legacy – of which he was left in no doubt, when a newspaper mistakenly published his obituary and castigated him for the invention of dynamite. Rather than being remembered for indirectly causing many deaths, Nobel decided to establish Nobel Prizes for physical science, chemistry, physiology or medicine, peacekeeping, and (to which we now draw our attention) literature.

Ideal or idealistic?

If his intention was to leave a legacy devoid of dissent or argument, then he cannot be said to have succeeded. Since the first award was bestowed in 1901, it has been both celebratory and fraught with difficulty. Even the terminology Nobel chose has led to the odd contretemps or two. His will suggested that the prize be awarded to an author who has written ‘den som inom litteraturen har producerat det mest framstående verket i en idealisk riktning’. Just in case your Swedish isn’t up to scratch, that translates as ‘in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’.

Ah, but does it? Appropriately enough, this kerfuffle centres on a question of definition. In Swedish, ‘idealisk’ can translate as either ‘ideal’ or ‘idealistic’ – which, of course, can mean quite different things when applied to literature. Ought the author’s body of work to be ideal (‘satisfying one’s conception of what is perfect’), or idealistic (‘unrealistically aiming for perfection’)? An early adoption of the latter definition led to renowned authors being rejected for the prize, including Tolstoy, Twain, and Ibsen. Latterly, the definition has been more liberally understood, but controversy has not disappeared.

Amid all the accusations that worthy authors have been overlooked (or, alternatively, that recipients have not been deserving), my favourite event in recent Nobel history is the moment that Doris Lessing was told she’d been awarded the prize. Reporters flanked her front door, each eager to be the first to pass on the good news. Her response? Redoubtable Lessing replied “I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I’m delighted to win them all. It’s a royal flush.” Quite, Doris, quite.

An unexpected winner

The list of authors to have received the accolade includes some of the brightest and best of international literary talent – or at least a fair few names you’ll probably remember from your school syllabus. Seamus Heaney? Certainly, in 1995. T.S. Eliot? But of course, in 1948. John Steinbeck? Check (even if the New York Times scorned the choice, commenting that Steinbeck’s ‘limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing’.)

And Winston Churchill? Yes, indeed. . . wait, what? Perhaps ‘literature’ isn’t the first word that comes to mind when considering the two-time British Prime Minister and (according to a BBC poll) Greatest Briton of all time – but in 1958 he was recognised ‘for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values’. Now, that’s got to beat a poem or two about cats, hasn’t it, T.S. Eliot?

Laureates in the OED

Besides winning a trophy for the mantelpiece, Nobel Laureates for Literature are responsible for hundreds of citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. Some are rather unexpected. As well as providing the (so-far) earliest discovered written evidence for ‘landing craft’ and ‘bomb-damaged’, Churchill also appears as the current earliest source for ‘the crunch’, in its sense of a crisis or confrontation.

It’s no surprise to see Eliot alongside ‘counter-rhythm’, but some Laureates appear under delightfully unscholarly words. John Galsworthy (who was awarded the prize in 1932) is currently quoted as the first source for ‘undernourished’, ‘bemusement’, and the verb form of ‘flibbertigibbet’. Rudyard Kipling (1907) is there for ‘groggily’ and the oddly modern-sounding ‘kissage’ (yes, it does mean what you think it means); Doris Lessing herself is, at present, cited as the source for the rather delicious word ‘vanillaed’.

While few writers set out with the overt intention of appearing in the OED , the Nobel Laureates don’t seem able to help themselves. Although people may squabble over the criteria for awarded the prize, the merits of recipients, and notable omissions – personally I’m horrified that Enid Blyton has been so rudely overlooked – we can all agree that they’ve helped broaden the English language. Where would we be without ‘the crunch’, I ask you? For that alone, Sir Winston Churchill, I am happy to agree that you are Greatest Briton ever.

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