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Q From Kay Larson: Could you tell me the origin of quiz; I have heard that it dates back to William Shakespeare’s time.

A We don’t know for sure where it comes from, but it doesn’t seem to be as old as Shakespeare’s day. It was first recorded in the late 1700s, in the sense of an odd or eccentric person. Later it became another word for a joke or a witticism and only about the middle of the nineteenth century did it take on the modern meaning of a more-or-less formal set of questions.

There is a famous tall tale about a Dublin theatre manager named James Daly, who accepted a bet that he could create a new word without any meaning and have everybody in the city using it within 24 hours. He is said to have employed a large number of urchins to go around the city and chalk the word quiz on every surface they could find so that the next day everybody was asking what this word meant. The story is best viewed through the bottom of a glass of something Irish.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 27 Feb. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-qui1.htm
Last modified: 27 February 1999.