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How quizzical…

Here’s the unusual journey of a word which initially meant an oddball, then became the equivalent of a joke, and now indicates a set of questions

Shashi Tharoor

Quiz (noun): Brief examination of a student on some subject

It’s always amazing that Indian students, who have to undergo so many tests and exams, still seem to enjoy participating in a quiz.

The origin of the word ‘quiz’ is obscure: its first use, in the late 1700s, was to refer to an oddball or eccentric person (as the London Magazine put it, “one who thinks, speaks, or acts differently from the rest of the world in general”.) Since it was also used for people who were pedantic and rule-bound, it was the late-18th century equivalent of calling someone a ‘nerd’ or a ‘dweeb’. Later it became another word for a joke or a wisecrack. It’s only in the last century and a half that it has been used in the current sense, of a set of questions requiring short answers.

One marvellous story attributes it to the manager of the Theatre Royal in the capital of Ireland, Dublin, named either Richard Daly or James Daly (depending on which version you trust), who apparently bet that he could create a new word without any meaning and have everybody in the city using it within 48 hours. Challenged to prove this, he allegedly employed a large number of street-children (the Brits and Irish called them urchins in those days) to go around the city and chalk the word quiz on every surface they could find –– doors, windows, and walls – so that the next day everybody was asking what this strange word meant. The word was short enough and easy enough for the urchins to write and people to remember it, and Daly accordingly won his bet, bringing ‘quiz’ into popular usage. Many linguists express scepticism about this story, suspecting a newspaper editor simply invented it to pad his columns, but I love the sound of it. Not every word comes with such a good story attached!

The Oxford Dictionary tells us that “the word is nevertheless hard to account for, and so is its later meaning of ‘to question or interrogate’. This emerged in the mid-19th century and gave rise to the most common use of the term today, for a type of entertainment based on a test of a person’s knowledge”. The 1971 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that its current meaning may be derived from the second syllable of the word ‘inquisitive’, which in turn derives from the Latin inquirire (to inquire). That certainly is more plausible that the Daly tall-tale.

Today we all know that a quiz is a form of mind game, in which the players (as individuals or in teams) attempt to answer questions correctly to demonstrate their knowledge –– either about a certain subject (like a ‘literature quiz’) or of esoteric and otherwise useless trivia (a ‘general knowledge’ quiz). Indians love to reveal their mastery of GK, and quiz competitions are a staple of most inter-school and inter-collegiate contests, sometimes televised to large audiences and increasingly featuring generous prizes. I was a ‘quizzard’ in my college days, a term I invented, and proudly number, among my most cherished extra-curricular achievements, founding the St Stephen’s College Quiz Club in 1974 and serving as its first president. In those days it was the first such quiz club in the country; today rare is the college that doesn’t have one.

Quizzing has also evolved considerably since I was a contestant in them, having become more sophisticated and complicated through the use of visual and musical questions, obscure slides and videos, and trick questions. But while in India we know of quizzes essentially as a sport (and watch them purely for entertainment), in some countries, notably the United States and Canada, a quiz is a serious educational challenge. The word is used for a form of student assessment that has fewer questions, usually of less difficulty, and requires less time for completion, than a test or examination. It’s often resorted to in classrooms to quickly check comprehension of a new lesson. In the US you also hear of a ‘pop quiz’, in which students are given no time to prepare but are simply surprised with it in class to see if they are up to speed with what is being taught.

But quizzes have acquired worldwide fame and popularity principally as money-spinners for gifted housewives on television shows, most famously Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and its spinoffs. Kaun Banega Crorepati, one may well ask – and the real answer is the well-paid TV quizmaster!

(HT Media)

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