What’s the origin of the word ‘quiz’? Quick, this is a quiz! First one to answer gets a prize...I always hated quizzes. Who doesn’t, right? That instant cold sweat every time the teacher announced those dreaded words (“Pop quiz today!”), prompting the urge to run to the bathroom, hide under a desk, start the day over or protest, “But I’m not ready!”
Yes, quizzes are unfair, but evidently to some people they remain an enjoyable enterprise. Imagine my chagrin upon coming to college when I found out that quizzes were not a distant thing of the past but a pernicious presence on campus. I would get slammed with a quiz in class only to battle them back at parties. My friends would whip out the latest personality tests to figure out if I was as an extrovert or introvert, go-getter or procrastinator, Rachel or Monica. I would get dragged to quiz bowl nights to help my teammates with my knowledge of dead languages, fictional characters, and forgotten politicians, only to buckle and blank under the pressure, cursing whoever invented such a tortuous game.
It seems there’s no escaping them. Quizzes have become ubiquitous in our popular culture of competitive gaming and public shaming. Just think of the continued success of classic TV shows like “Jeopardy!” and “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” Not to mention the meteoric rise of new shows, like “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” that bring our level of self-respect to a new low. It seems everything has turned into a quiz: spelling, dating, memory, personality, politics, even stupidity. The word hovers in the air like a predator, its origins hard to account for.
Being a master of dead languages, however, I should be able to venture a few educated guesses as to the etymology of the accursed word. “Quiz” sounds a lot like the Latin phrase, “qui es,” meaning “who are you?” and thus denoting a question or interrogation. It could also be traced back to the Latin verb “inquirer” (to ask) from which we get the word “inquisitive.”
The truth is, I am rather inquisitive myself. I hate answering questions but love asking them, hypocritical as that may seem. To my friends and not-so-friendly classmates, I am “that kid in section,” who needs to have the last word—except my last word usually ends in a question mark, not an exclamation point. Doubting my own stores of knowledge, I deflect instead of deliver the answers people crave. Like Socrates, if I may be so bold as to strike the comparison, “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.” For the great philosopher, this was probably due to his profound insight into the dialectical logic of all things, whereas I say this out of profound ignorance. But, it’s an ignorance that nonetheless irks me and I always endeavor to hide it like some shameful skin disease through elaborate cover-up schemes or topical remedies. These calculated maneuverings, of course, unwittingly align me with yet another definition of the word “quiz.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, before its modern-day usage as a grammatical object, the word “quiz” appeared in 1782 as a subject-noun, meaning “an odd or eccentric person.” Upon encountering this definition, I could already hear the classroom chants and jeers pointing to me as delicious proof of “a quiz, a quiz!” Yet, had I my wits about me (unlikely), I could have always told my hypothetical bullies that the joke was on them, for “quiz” has yet another storied genesis.
It seems the etymology of “quiz” is not only a trick question but also a plain trick. Rumor has it that in 1791, a prankster and Dublin theater proprietor by the name of James Daly made a bet that he could make up a nonsensical word that would become a catchphrase overnight. He hired a group of street actors to write the word “quiz” on the walls around Dublin, and the next day people were asking each other what “quiz” meant. No doubt some know-it-alls claimed they had the answer, while others thought it was a test.
There is only one record of this story, appearing in 1836—after the term was already in use. But there is at least symbolic truth to the fabled origins of the word, which continues to have as many meanings as it has applications. Realizing the friendly, even familiar, alter egos that ‘quiz’ can take on, I have learned to look upon it less as a threat and more as a game, albeit with reservations. For the test of sense is, at root, nonsense.