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The History Of The Nobel Prizes


Now it's time for our segment called Words You'll Hear. That's where we take a word or phrase that we think will be in the news in the coming days and let you know what it's all about. This week, our word is laureate. That's because the Nobel Prizes will be awarded this week in disciplines that include medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and peacemaking. And if you get one, you're considered a laureate. But what is a laureate? Where does the word come from? And how did this all start? Here to tell us more is Gustav Kallstrand, chief curator of the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. And we reached him there. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

GUSTAV KALLSTRAND: Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So first of all, could you give us the brief history of the Nobel Prizes? Could you just remind us of how they began?

KALLSTRAND: Well, it was started by the inventor Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite. And when he died, he left his will. And in the will, he said that everything he owned should be sold and turned into the fund, and the interest from that fund should go to an annual award for outstanding achievements in these, well, fields that you just mentioned.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that one of the reasons this prize is so significant - I mean, the committee first assembled when, in 1901? That's correct?

KALLSTRAND: Yes, exactly.

MARTIN: So how does it work? How is one eligible?

KALLSTRAND: What they do is they have a nomination system. Not just anyone can nominate, but you have to be invited. So it's experts in these different fields. And then these committees get these nominations. And then they, of course, do very thorough evaluation work, looking at these discoveries that are nominated to see that are the right people nominated? Can we make absolutely sure that this scientific discovery is correct? So they don't want to make any mistakes.

MARTIN: Has the committee ever gotten it wrong, in your view?

KALLSTRAND: In science, you can actually say that they've made mistakes, well, actually two times, when the science has been proven not correct. When it comes to the prizes in literature and peace, I would say that there are, every year, lots of people who say that they have made mistakes and equally many people who say that they got it right. So that's - in those cases, it's much more difficult.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I don't want to forget the question that brought us to you, which is what is a laureate? And why is it that we call the winners of this very prestigious award a laureate?

KALLSTRAND: A laureate is someone who's wearing laurels, which is basically - comes from antiquity. That's how you showed people that someone was a winner of a contest or someone worthy of high praise. But it's actually a really important question when it comes to the Nobel Prize that we don't call them winners. We call them laureates because to say that there are winners implies that there are losers. And there are so many good scientists and writers and people working for peace. And it would be very strange to consider all the other candidates losers.

MARTIN: That comes as a great relief, as you - 'cause I will never get one. So (laughter) will they wear...

KALLSTRAND: ...Well, you never know. You never know.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. But - so they are laureates because they wear laurels. And it comes from antiquity, which is the bay laurel leaf.

KALLSTRAND: Although we do still have laurels, actually, in academia. When a person gets a Ph.D. in the humanities, you will get laurels to wear on that day.

MARTIN: Really? Do you wear it as a crown? Or would you wear it in your lapel? Or - how does it wear?

KALLSTRAND: Yeah, you wear it on your head as a crown. I have one at home.

MARTIN: You have one at home?


MARTIN: Did you dry it or did you put it in a frame or something? What did you do with it?

KALLSTRAND: They can - actually, what you can do is you can have it in the kitchen and you can dry it. And then you can use the laurels, you know, when you make pasta sauce, for example. This is actually tasty.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Well, I don't know. We should talk to your mom about that, how she feels about your putting your laurels in the kitchen. But that's Gustav Kallstrand. He is the chief curator of the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. Thank you so much for joining us.

KALLSTRAND: Yes, it was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.