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What is the origin of the word 'Quiz'?

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Clint Dawkins
160.  Fri Oct 10, 2003 4:00 am Reply with quote

The story goes that a Dublin theatre proprietor by the name of Richard Daly made a bet that he could, within forty-eight hours, make a nonsense word known throughout the city, and that the public would give a meaning to it. After the performance one evening, he gave his staff cards with the word `quiz' written on them, and told them to write the word on walls around the city. The next day the strange word was the talk of the town, and within a short time it had become part of the language. This picturesque tale appeared as an anecdote in 1836, but the most detailed account (in F. T. Porter's Gleanings and Reminiscences, 1875) gives the date of the exploit as 1791. The word, however, was already in use by then, meaning `an odd or eccentric person', and had been used in this sense by Fanny Burney in her diary on 24 June 1782. `Quiz' was also used as a name for a curious toy, something like a yo-yo and also called a bandalore, which was popular around 1790. The word is nevertheless hard to account for, and so is its later meaning of `to question, to interrogate', which emerged in the mid-19th century and gave rise to the most common use of the term today, for an entertainment based on questions and answers, such as that in which Mr Stephen Fry is now so ably engaged.

163.  Fri Oct 10, 2003 4:18 am Reply with quote

Well, I don't think I have anything to add to that, but: when I was at school, if we wanted to give something away we would hold it up and say "Quis?" and then whoever said "Ego!" first was entitled to claim it. As far as I can make out kids no longer do this, nor do they say "Fains" if they want to avoid doing something or "Cave" if a teacher's coming. Is anyone aware of these customs still existing anywhere?

171.  Fri Oct 10, 2003 11:27 am Reply with quote

A lovely story, but has that faintly constructed after the event feel that so many word/phrase origins have (qv brass monkeys). I think Flash is probably closest, as qui es? "who are you?," was the first question in Latin oral exams in C16th grammar schools, according to the excelllent and reliable It goes on: 'the spelling 'quiz' first recorded 1886, though it was in use as a noun from 1867, perhaps from apparently unrelated slang word quiz meaning "odd person" (source of quizzical ).'
That has the dull ring of truth about it to me.

Slightly more importantly, and speaking with an eye on the secondary use of the lucubrations that gathers as it grows, it is essential that we acknowledge sources, or re write in our own words. I use askOxford a lot and Mr Dawkins charming post is copied from that site without any credit.

Clint Dawkins
172.  Fri Oct 10, 2003 11:53 am Reply with quote

Fear not, Menocchio. I am well versed in the QI way and was researching nuggets as far back as August 2000 when Messrs Fry, Davies and co were at best virginal, at worst a glint in the milkman's eye when it came to this stuff...

You are right to scold me though - I am still treading these talk boards gingerly as an actor might before a first night. Not least as the set may be about to change...

You are probably right about the suspect nature of that entry. I find this posthumous justification problem a great deal with word origins too.

We may never know. But in QI, truth will always come second to interestingness, if both cannot be achieved, as in this case.

Warmest and fraternal greetings to a fellow QIer (whoever you are!)

175.  Fri Oct 10, 2003 12:20 pm Reply with quote

Clint's post is also quite close to the entry for Quiz in my copy of Brewer's, which adds that the story is a "fable" which I think just means unverified / unverifiable. It also says that quiz wasn't used in its current sense of question-and-answer game until the second world war, which I didn't believe until I looked it up in a 1931 edition of the Concise OED, and, sure enough, it doesn't even mention this meaning - it defines quiz as an odd or eccentric person, or a hoax.

Which is Quite Interesting.

176.  Fri Oct 10, 2003 12:20 pm Reply with quote

A most gracious reply Signor Dawkins. You might be the man to help me trace the provenance of the 'old Chinese curse': may you live in interesting times. This much I know: it isn't Chinese, nor is it particularly old. But I can't find a reliable first use. It would be nice to pin it down.

Clint Dawkins
178.  Fri Oct 10, 2003 12:33 pm Reply with quote

If you've been looking into that VERY interesting question, you've probably found this page on the internet:, which runs through some of the debate and conflicting theories.

Leave it with me and I shall see what I can find.

180.  Fri Oct 10, 2003 12:36 pm Reply with quote

I thought it was from Ernest Bramah's Kai Lung stories, which are a particular enthusiasm of mine, as John L knows.

189.  Fri Oct 10, 2003 5:44 pm Reply with quote

I think that was what is known as 'a civil dispute'.

Thank you, gentlemen, for expressing things so graciously to one another.

Very QI, if I may say so.

201.  Sun Oct 12, 2003 1:23 pm Reply with quote

Further to post no 2 above, I was at a kids' party this w/e (chez Buttononion, as it happens) and the boys there were in fact saying "quis?" and "ego" after all. So cancel that query, at least as far as the Dragon School is concerned.

202.  Sun Oct 12, 2003 8:23 pm Reply with quote

My god-son ( 11 ) said to me the other day, " liar, liar. pants on fire '. Have we heard this one before? I hadn't; others say they've heard it forever. Any news on this?

203.  Mon Oct 13, 2003 2:59 am Reply with quote

For heaven's sake man, where have you been? Liar, liar, pants on fire, nose is as long as a telephone wire. Also, our mutual friend Helen A-W uses an abbreviated form when she thinks someone's fibbing: "I think I can smell burning pants around here".

Like all the best abbreviations, just slightly longer than the original.

244.  Tue Oct 14, 2003 9:18 pm Reply with quote

Going back a little way - I thought the brass monkey thing was a stand used for cannon balls on ships. In freezing temperatures, the brass stand contracted at a different rate to the iron balls, and the cannon balls would then fall off - hence 'cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey'.

Amazing how many nautical metaphors there are in English speech though - 'three sheets to the wind' for example. Our seafaring heritage, evidently.

249.  Wed Oct 15, 2003 3:41 am Reply with quote

Hunting, too.

That's interesting about the brass monkey. I hadn't heard that before.

252.  Wed Oct 15, 2003 4:12 am Reply with quote

Pace Brewer, the scepticism re: brass monkey is crisply summarised on
The story goes that cannonballs used to be stored aboard ship in piles, on a brass frame or tray called a 'monkey'. In very cold weather the brass would contract, spilling the cannonballs: hence very cold weather is 'cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey'. There are several problems with this story. The first is that the term 'monkey' is not otherwise recorded as the name for such an object. The second is that the rate of contraction of brass in cold temperatures is unlikely to be sufficient to cause the reputed effect. The third is that the phrase is actually first recorded as 'freeze the tail off a brass monkey', which removes any essential connection with balls. It therefore seems most likely that the phrase is simply a ribald allusion to the fact that metal figures will become very cold to the touch in cold weather (and some materials will become brittle).

Good party game though - 'three sheets to (or 'in') the wind' anyone?


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