What Is The Origin Of The Word "Quiz"?

History quiz questions competitions

These days the word quiz has become synonymous with fun things like pub quizzes, Buzzfeed quizzes and even quizzes at school, however what many people don’t realise is that this word is a relatively new addition to English vocabulary.

In fact, the word quiz was introduced in a remarkably bizarre fashion a few hundred years ago, and for its initial existence it had a wildly different meaning too. We love historical explorations into quizzes here at Winzum, as you can tell from other articles such as this one [a brief history of quizzes], so let us enlighten you with a bit of knowledge about the word “quiz” itself.

Richard Daly

We genuinely weren’t joking when we said that the word quiz has quite a bizarre origin. Allegedly it was a Dublin theatre proprietor called Richard Daly who invented the word, as he made a bet that he could make up a new random word, and that within 48 hours the whole city would know about it. Moreover, he reckoned Dubliners would even supply a meaning!

Mr Daly told his theatre staff to write the word “quiz” all across the walls of the city, and by the next day it was the talk of the town. It didn’t take long for quiz to become a genuine word in the language, and Richard Daly won his bet after all. So, next time you enter a pub quiz or Buzzfeed quiz just remember, the word itself is directly related to nonsense!

18th century meaning of the word quiz

Whilst we can never know for certain whether the Richard Daly tale is true, it has been mentioned in writings from the 18th century such as F.T Porter’s “Gleanings and Reminiscences”. Throughout this period it seems as though quiz was used to describe “an odd or eccentric person”, which is fitting considering the supposed origin of the word.

In the late 18th century quizzes may have also referred to a type of children’s toy that closely resembled a yo-yo. As you can see, the word quiz has had a slippery meaning over the last few centuries, and it is a delightful example of the constantly evolving nature of language in general.

19th century shift in meaning

It is difficult to work out exactly how or why this happened, but by the mid 19th century quizzes or quizzing had become the term “to question or interrogate”. This is where our modern understanding of the word quiz comes from, however language historians are still confused as to how this evolution happened.

Most experts point to the similarities between “quiz” and “inquisitive”, arguing that the two words slowly started to blend into each other. By the end of the 19th century people were conducting quizzes and creating quiz questions for enjoyment – the start of the modern era of the word “quiz”.

Modern day meaning of quizzes

For the last hundred or so years the word “quiz” has pretty solidly been used to designate the variety of knowledge based competitions that we can play today. In the UK things like pub quizzes, Buzzfeed quizzes and general knowledge quizzes are incredibly popular, with everybody eager to test their mental capacity.

2020 quizzes have also taken on a more special meaning due to the Covid-19 pandemic, as people have been passionately devising their own pub quiz questions for weekly Zoom or House Party quizzes. Not only are quizzes great fun, but they also bring us all together – we all have Richard Daly to thank for that one!

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