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Roosting on your laurels: chickens, champions, and the Pulitzer Prize

Roosting on your laurels: chickens, champions, and the Pulitzer Prize

“In 1957, Eugene O’Neill won a Pullet Surprise”. I read this recently in a book of classroom howlers, a collection of humorous mistakes that students have made in their schoolwork. It’s easy to laugh, but perhaps it signifies that not everyone is familiar with Pulitzer Prizes. They were first awarded on 4 June 1917 – although now it is in May each year that Columbia University in New York City is host to the Pulitzer Prize luncheon, one of the most prestigious award ceremonies in the United States. Pulitzers are awarded in twenty-one categories, most of them related to journalism, but also including musical composition, poetry, drama, and others.

Frost-bitten language

Perhaps one of the most celebrated Pulitzer laureates is Robert Frost, whose work won him the Pulitzer for Poetry a record total of four times. There is little more characteristic of a great poet than the inventive use of language, and looking at Frost’s presence in the Oxford English Dictionary’s illustrative quotations shows him to have been quite a word-player. For example, he currently provides the Dictionary’s only evidence of the noun inhumanitarian, a person who denies humanitarianism. He could be relatively unkind in his neologisms, too. He is listed as the OED’s only evidence for moanism, the habit or practice of lamenting. In a jocular letter of 1916, he offered himself as an expert on “Moanism and swounding. On larruping an emotion.” (Swounding is an archaic word for fainting, while to larrup is to flog or thrash something.)

Although he has something of a highbrow reputation, and is quoted in OED entries such as audile, pomological, and precipitously, Frost was also quite at home with jocular language, such as discombobulation. He described his poem Build Soil as “a monkey-shine”, a trick or prank, and said of a character in a novel “She wasn’t experimenting, poor thing. She was randoming”, providing OED’s current earliest evidence of this sense of random as a verb. Frost was a great lover of the American language, and we hear the sounds of U.S. dialect in his writings, even as he celebrates his sense of uniqueness, as he writes to a friend “I wish I could remember where-all I’ve been in the past week or so and who-all I’ve baptized into my heresies.” For all these reasons, Frost richly deserved to be honoured by that most American of prizes, the Pulitzer.

What’s in a name?

Like the Nobel prize, named after its founder Alfred Nobel, or the Hugo award for science-fiction, named after the early sci-fi magazine editor Hugo Gernsback, the Pulitzer’s etymology is pretty transparent: it is named after Joseph Pulitzer, the inspired nineteenth-century Hungarian-American newspaper publisher whose 1904 will established the prizes. The Tony awards for theatre have an equally clear root; they are named after the American actress, manager, and producer Antoinette Perry. Compare this with the Oscars, the annual award ceremony of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The name Oscar, referring to the humanoid statuettes given to award winners, was first officially used by the Academy in 1939, though it was obviously in use earlier – the OED’s first evidence for the word in this sense is in 1934. But nobody is entirely sure where the name came from. There are competing theories, including the idea that the statuette was named after Oscar Wilde, and the claim that the actress Bette Davis named it after her first husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson. The most plausible etymology (and the one suggested as a possibility by the OED), however, is based on an anecdote which says that Margaret Herrick, librarian (later executive director) of the Academy, remarked that the statuette reminded her of her ‘Uncle Oscar’. So there’s a strong possibility that this golden symbol of glamour and stardom is named after a 1930s fruit farmer called Oscar Pierce.

The Emmy, television’s equivalent of the Oscar, has a far clearer etymology, according to its official website. The award was created by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in order to raise its public profile, with the first ceremony held in 1949. The statuette, featuring a winged woman, might originally have been called Ike, the television industry’s name for an iconoscope tube, but for the existence of the war hero General “Ike” Eisenhower. A less well-known name was sought, and Harry Lubcke, president of the Academy, suggested Immy, a nickname used for the early image orthicon camera. The name was later modified to Emmy, which was seen as more suitable for a female statuette. Other awards seem to have patterned their names after the Emmy and the Tony, using single syllables with an added –y sound, including the Obie (an award for off-Broadway theatre) and the Grammy (the recording industry award; the first element of the word comes from gramophone) .

Praising and prizing

The word prize itself was originally a variant form of price, which in early use in English could refer to expressions of honour and praise, or to the place of honour such as that held by a victor. Price comes from the Old French pris, which in modern French is prix, a word covering the modern English senses of price and prize – the Grand Prix, for example, is a major prize, but a prix fixe is a menu or meal made up of a number of courses at a fixed price. Award is another word with French roots, and originally referred to a legal judgement, and in consequence to the payment or penalty assigned by a judge. An old emblem of distinction in poetry, as well as in other pursuits, was the laurel; it is from this practice that the word laureate comes, this time from a Latin root meaning “crowned with laurels”. After all this Latinate vocabulary, we come back down to earth with winner. Quite literally, in fact: the Old English verb winnan originally meant to strive, to work or labour, so the early English would win with their hands, working in the fields.

The Pulitzer winners for 2013 have already been announced, so all that’s left for them is to bask in the glory of their achievements at the Pulitzer luncheon. Perhaps the menu will include a pullet surprise…

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