Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Quizzical Fitness

For a number of years I've been hearing a story about the origin of the word Quiz. It's one of those 'interesting facts' that someone delights in telling you when you're in the kitchen at a party. I heard it again today. It goes something like this ...

A particularly cocky Dublin theatre owner called Richard Daly (though there are other suspects) claimed that he could, within 48 hours, introduce a new word to the language and that the public would give the new word a meaning. He even made a bet on the matter (although the size of the bet and who he had it with varies with each retelling). He then gave cards to all of his staff with the word 'quiz' written on them, and told them to write the word on walls around the city. The next day the strange word was the talk of the town and, within the aforementioned 48 hours, it had become part of the language as a term for a curious thing or puzzle.

It's a great story but, like so many of the stories I'm told in kitchens at parties, it's probably bunk. Bunkum and tosh I'm afraid. This story seems to have gained a public audience after the publication of F T Porter's Gleanings and Reminiscences (1875). The problem is that Porter claims that the event took place in 1791 ... but there was already a popular yoyo-type toy called a quiz (or bandalore) in circulation at that time. So wouldn't people have wondered why someone was writing 'yoyo' on the walls? And how did it come to mean a puzzle? One possible origin is that it's a corruption of the Latin quid is est (what this is). Another is that it's simply a contraction (using the middle syllable) of 'inquisitive'.

It all goes to show how difficult it is to pin down a definite origin for any event that occurred before people started to record such things. I mention this because I've been researching several new books recently and I've probably had to spend more time verifying data than finding it. The internet is a wonderful resource but it is completely 'open source'; by that I mean that anyone can write whatever they like and, as the result, a fair amount of rumour, urban myth, conspiracy theory and general Apocrypha gets recorded as fact, often by well-meaning bloggers and webbers who haven't ratified their sources. But it's not just the web. A number of posts ago, I mentioned the 'fox-terrier problem' identified by the late Stephen Jay Gould (read it here). Basically, it's the discovery that some writers simply recycle facts from older publications that they cite as reference ... but have made no attempt to check their veracity. Consequently, errors are being reproduced and passed on, book to book, generation to generation.

The way to stop this is to develop an enquiring mind. Don't necessarily accept what you read or hear. Challenge it. Research it. Learn about the subject. That's what the Enlightenment* was all about - the rigorous testing of evidence to ascertain the truth. As you'll know if you watch shows like QI, the actual truth is often very different from the truth you think you know. The Earth has more than one moon, champagne was invented in the UK, Henry VIII didn't have six wives and, despite the scaremongering of certain newspapers, you probably won't die from Bird Flu.

Believe nothing. Challenge everything. Discover the real truth for yourselves. And try to avoid that 'I've got an interesting fact' bloke by staying out of the kitchen at parties.

*A period beginning in the late 18th century during which reason became the primary basis of authority, rather than religious belief. It encouraged critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals and led to the creation of real science.

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