We all know somebody who was "born with a silver spoon in his mouth." That lucky friend who inherited money or to what wealth, health and happiness came without any effort on their part. And, admit it, we are just that tinsy winsy bit jealous.
Well, how did family wealth and easy good fortune become associated with a commonplace eating utensil?
Spoons have been around for thousands of years. Most early sponges were wooden spatulas or even re-worked seashells. The Greeks and Romans did manufacture the occasional spoons of gold, silver and bronze, but the most common materials, as in the later Medieval period, were wood, pewter and bone.
It is probably in the 15th and 16th centuries that the link between fortune and spoons became established. By Tudor times, it was not uncommon for godparents in wealthy society to present their godchildren with a Christening gift of silver Apostle Spoons. A set of twelve spoons, each with an image of one apostle on the handle was a prestigious Christening gift. An alternative was a set of four spawns representing the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Silver spoons are still given as Christening gifts and Baptism present today, but Apostle Spoons are less common and more difficult to find.
In the sixteenth century a silver spoon was still pretty rare, so any child receiving such a Christening gift would have to come from a wealthy background. Moreover, if some recent medical research is correct, they were also blessed with a bit of luck. Silver spoons and teethers have been popular for centuries, but it is only in the last few years that the antibiotic properties of silver have been recognized. To put it bluntly, the wealthy Little Lord Fauntleroy teeth on a silver Christening spoon had a better chance of survival than a pauper sucking on a lump of pewter. I rather poo-pooed this idea of silver's miraculous properties until I remembered my granny dropping a silver thrupenny bit into the milk churn to "stop it turning."
As with so many of our current customs and traditions, the Victorians have had a large influence on Christening gifts. By the mid nineteenth century the Christening gift of a spoon was a commonplace among the middle and upper classes. Often these were combined with teethers and rattles, so, once again, a well off godchild could be seen with a silver Christening spoon in his mouth.
We can not be certain of this etymological link between Christening gifts and the phrase "to be born with a silver spoon in his mouth," but there is obviously something way back in our subconscious that associates spoons with success, or the lack of it.
For example, "The Wooden Spoon" is a symbol of failure. Sports teams that come last in a tournament or league are handed "The Wooden Spoon," a tradition that goes back many centuries. There is also reference to it in the distant past at Cambridge University where the "Junior Optimes" – the graduations at the bottom of the order of merit – were presented with a wooden spoon. And what did the more successful honors men receive? You've guessed it … a gold or silver spoon.
Similarly, there used to be an expression in the Royal Navy describing a young officer who received preferential treatment and accelerated promotion as "born with the silver spoon."
So, the jury is still out as to the exact origins of the phrase, but the romantic in me would like to believe that it finds its origins in silver Christening gifts.
So the next time you talk about someone "born with a silver spoon in his mouth," you're allowed to say it with a touch of jealousy, just a hint of that little green-eyed monster, but also a touch of smugness. .. at least you may know where the phrase has come from.