It is a little-known fact, but the phrase “small potatoes” actually stems from a practice among state universities in the middle ages. Every year, the medieval administrators would pass out awards to the faculty, and the award in each case was a very small potato, which was useful in its own way, and tasty, but at the same time an unmistakable message: “Don’t let this go to your head, you pathetic bookworm. It’s only a potato.” The award ceremony continues to this day, but potatoes have been abandoned in favor of calligraphied sheets of paper and (on occasion) nice amounts of cash. Unfortunately, the unmistakable message has gotten lost in the shuffle, and many people no longer regard the awards as truly small potatoes.
All of this by way of apology, in some sense, for having received some small potatoes (and a generous check). I know that many people have a healthy attitude toward awards: they think that it is a good thing when good work is recognized, and even better when that good work is their own. That makes excellent sense. But I was raised to think otherwise. My dad (who loved me very much, and if anything over-celebrated my small achievements) often found occasion to say “Eigenlobt shtinkt” — which was his own version of German amounting to the phrase, “Self-praise stinks.” I ended up with the belief that any sort of award reflecting well upon me was an item of self-praise, and ergo shtunk, and ergo was an invitation for God to soon find some way to make me look like an utter idiot.
So I have tended to shy away from all small potatoes. I didn’t this time — indeed, I shamelessly nominated myself for this award — because (a) I wanted some money, and (b) I wondered whether, when all was said and awarded, I would feel as if the money was worth it. So far the results are unclear. I haven’t got the money yet, and I am supposed to go to at least two ceremonies at which I will eat bland food, make small talk, and receive recognition. I know this is all very nice, and should be flattering, but my upbringing makes it seem as welcoming to me as showing up to work naked.
I should add that I do not see all awards as small potatoes. Things like the Pulitzer and the MacArthur and Nobel are very big potatoes. Anyone should feel proud and lucky to receive such tubers. (The Templeton is like a huge yam; in receiving it, you should be grateful, but also a little puzzled.) And I certainly do not condemn anyone who gives awards, or accepts them graciously with little evidence of mental anguish. I envy them all. But I am now living with the full expectation that, in months to come, I will look like an utter idiot, standing out there with a small potato in my hand.
congratulations, what do you call this small potato?
It’s the “Researcher of the Year” award for the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.
Congratulations, Charlie. I have no doubt that the wit and fluency of your literary voice will keep you, with potato, in very good stead; and I would hope that any lingering diffidence is compensated for by the extension in exposure Nietzsche and Spinoza will enjoy as a result of your distinction.