Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Here's a Pop Quiz: Where the Heck Did "Quiz" Come From?

Quiz is a word with a background so baffling it might make you feel a bit quizzical. For the latest installment of Slate's Lexicon Valley podcast, I delve into the mysterious origins of quiz and its long-forgotten brother quoz.

Our current understanding of quiz, as a noun meaning "a short test" or a corresponding verb "to test one's knowledge," only dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, mostly cropping up in American usage (as in an 1867 letter from William James referring to "'quizzes' in anatomy and physiology"). In that sense, quiz had a resemblance to such questioning words as inquire, inquisition, and inquisitive. There was even a verb inquisite, shortened in some dialects to quiset, meaning "to question," that likely influenced the semantic development of the word.

But back in the 1780s, the word quiz first emerged with a different meaning, referring to an odd or eccentric person or thing. It may have originated at schoolboy slang; in 1782, the English essayist Vicesimus Knox relayed that at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, those who "take a pleasure in conversing on letters" were "solitary mortals" stigmatized as quizzes, suggesting that quizzes were originally something like proto-nerds.

As I explain on Lexicon Valley, I've long been intrigued by the origins of quiz because of a bit of word-lore attached to it. As the story goes, quiz was the result of a bet involving the Dublin theater owner Richard Daly, who accepted a challenge to concoct and popularize a new word. I've managed to find versions of this story in British newspapers dating back to 1835. An introduction was given, illustrating that the origins of quiz were just as murky then as now:

Very few words ever took such a run, or were saddled with so many meanings, as this monosyllable; and, however strange the word, 'tis still more strange that not one of our lexicographers, from Bailey to Johnson, ever attempted an explanation, or gave a derivation of it. The reason is very obvious: it is because it has no meaning, nor is it derived from any language in the world ever known, from the Babylonish confusion to this day. 

Then followed the tale of Daly and the apocryphal wager:

When Richard Daly was patentee of the Irish theatres he spent the evening of a Saturday in company with many of the wits and men of fashion of the day; gambling was introduced, when the manager staked a large sum that he would have spoken, all through the principal streets of Dublin, by a certain hour next day, Sunday, a word having no meaning, and being derived from no known language — wagers were laid, and stakes deposited. Daly repaired to the theatre, and dispatched all the servants and supernumeraries with the word "Quiz," which they chalked on every door and shop window in town. Shops being shut all next day, every body going to and coming from their different places of worship saw the word, and every body repeated it, so that "quiz" was heard all through Dublin; the circumstance of so strange a word being on every door and window caused much surprise, and ever since should a strange story be attempted to be passed current, it draws forth the expression — you are quizzing me.
The Leeds Times, Jan. 17, 1835

A year after this story circulated in 1835, it found its way into a dictionary, Walker Remodelled: a New Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, by B.H. Smart. Later, in 1875, an Irish police magistrate named Frank Thorpe Porter published a meticulously detailed version of the Daly story in his memoir Gleanings and Reminiscences. By that time, all of the participants in the purported bet were conveniently dead. And while Porter's account is compelling, it's fatally undermined by the fact that he fixes the date of the bet as Aug. 21, 1791, by which time the word quiz had already been circulating for about a decade.

As I dug deeper, I discovered that the story of the bet was first attached to a slightly different word: not quiz but quoz, with the wager said to have taken place in London, not Dublin. There are references to quoz being chalked up around the city of London in Thomas Paine's 1792 tract The Rights of Man, as well as the second volume of Charles Mackay's fascinating work, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. 

Many years ago the favourite phrase ... was Quoz. This odd word took the fancy of the multitude in an extraordinary degree, and very soon acquired an almost boundless meaning. When vulgar wit wished to mark its incredulity, and raise a laugh at the same time, there was no resource so sure as this popular piece of slang. When a man was asked a favour which he did not choose to grant, he marked his sense of the suitor’s unparalleled presumption by exclaiming Quoz! When a mischievous urchin wished to annoy a passenger, and create mirth for his comrades, he looked him in the face, and cried out Quoz! and the exclamation never failed in its object... Every alehouse resounded with Quoz; every street-corner was noisy with it, and every wall for miles around was chalked with it.
Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, Vol. II, 1852

By searching through databases of British newspapers, I was able to pinpoint exactly when quoz-mania hit London: in August 1789, when the similar word quiz was still very new. And the earliest news report that I have found gives its origin in, you guessed it, a bet:

Quoz. This queer word originated, we understand, in a bet. Two Gentlemen betted a dinner, to be given by the loser, at the London Tavern, that one of them should fix upon any odd absurd expression, which should, in a given time, become the Town Talk. The other laid he did not. QUOZ was the word chosen; and the bet has been acknowledged to be lost. The WINNER began by writing, with chalk, the word QUOZ, upon various doors. Future wits and more ingenious heads, improved on the idea, and added various other strokes of humour to the original QUOZ.
The World (London), Aug. 15, 1789

In the weeks that followed, there were many paeans to quoz, none more lyrical than a song written and performed by John Edwin at London's Theatre Royal. Here are a few verses:

Hey for buckish words, for phrases we've a passion
Immensly great and little once, were all the fashion;
Hum'd, and then humbuz'ed, twaddle tippy poz;
All have had their day; but now must yield to QUOZ.
Walk about the town, each time you turn your head, Sir,
Pop staring in your phiz, is Q, U, O, and Z, Sir:
Cried, Madam Dip to deary, its monstrous scandaloz
To write on peoples shutters that shameful, nasty, Quoz...
Some may think it French, some may call it Latin,
Some give in this meaning, other will give that in:
Mean it what it will, or sense or non compos,
The meaning, I should think — the meaning must be Quoz.
Diary or Woodfall's Register, Sept. 5, 1789

The rage for quoz quickly died out, and the folklore of the bet instead got attached to quiz, the word that survived the neologizing heyday of the 1780s. But I feel that quoz is due for a comeback. Could we revive it by chalking it up all over town in a 21st-century style, by turning it into a hashtag on Twitter? Go forth and spread the good word: #quoz!

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