The following dialogue takes place in the play The Heir at Law by George Colman the younger:
Dick. But what a confounded Gig you look like.
Pangloss. A Gig! umph! That’s an Eton phrase; the Westminsters call it Quiz.—Act IV, Scene 2.
The play was first performed at the Haymarket in 1797. The OED quotes Pangloss’s reply at gig, but it is the exchange that will interest us. The earliest known citation for quiz “odd-looking figure” goes back to 1782. By the end of the century the word must have spread far and wide and could be recognized by theater-goers. Its synonym gig, along with fag (another piece of fashionable school slang: “a junior performing certain duties for a senior boy,” perhaps scurrilous, but devoid of sexual overtones), came into vogue around the same time. The senses of quiz, recorded in the OED, are as follows: “odd or eccentric person,” “odd-looking thing,” “bandalore” (that is, “whirligig,” a kind of yo-yo; note gig at the end of whirligig), “someone who likes to make fun of others,” “hoax,” and finally, “ oral examination.” The latest meaning, the only one remembered today, originated in the United States and was attested in the eighteen-nineties. Apparently, a quiz for students was a “teaser.” (An aside: the process of pondering issues, objectives, and visions has never changed. According to an oft-repeated anecdote, the Duke of Wellington, then Captain Wesley, amused himself with a quiz, the toy, when serving on a committee of the Irish House of Commons.)
The origin of quiz has not been discovered, but we know its recorded history and can draw some tentative conclusions. Wherever the word arose, its success must have stemmed from its use by the young elite. Quiz has always referred to something droll and whimsically comical, be it a ludicrous figure, a funny object, or a toy. Most probably, it was coined shortly before the time of its first attestation, that is, a few years before 1780 If those conclusions are right, the idea, even though it was offered by a learned man, that quiz is in some way connected with the dialectal bird name quist need not be considered. School slang can occasionally be traced to Latin and Greek. Both languages constituted the core of boys’ education for centuries and gave rise to many pseudo-classical words and phrases. The old conjecture that quiz is the middle syllable of inquisitive (it had even Skeat’s tepid support) is not bad. The quizzes of old were mostly given to banter, but the 1864 edition of Hotten’s Slang Dictionary states that at Oxford quiz designated a prying person, and not only an odd fellow. Still it seems that prying was not a conspicuous feature of the earliest quizzes. (To anticipate an obvious suggestion: the adjective quizzical, 1800, was derived from the noun; therefore, quiz is not a back formation from it. The short-lived neologisms quizzish, quizzity, quizzy, and quizzify also existed. All of them were near contemporaries of quiz and testify to the popularity of the word from which they were derived.) Another (unattractive) hypothesis traces quiz to “a corruption” of Latin quid is’t (= quid is est “what this is”).
Some folklore has grown around the circumstances in which quiz came into being. According to one story, the inventor of quiz was a certain Daly, the manager of a Dublin theater, who, in 1791, wagered that a word of no meaning would become the common talk and puzzle of the city in twenty-four hours; in the course of that time, the letters q, u, i, z were chalked or posted on all the walls of Dublin with an effect that won the wager. Thus we are again in Ireland. Some such episode is not unthinkable. However, two more people have been named as the winners of the same wager. Besides this, as the citations in the OED show, by 1791 quiz was at least nine years old, so that Daly’s writing on the wall comes too late. I doubt that many people are in the habit of reading The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, once published in New York, and will quote a passage from its volume for1865, with the sole purpose of providing entertainment. In an article entitled “Eccentric etymologies” and meant for “leisure hours,” an anonymous author wrote: “There is the phrase to quiz a person; concerning which we have seen this explanation: ‘A certain great personage is said to have exhibited the exercise of a child’s plaything called the quiz, in consequence of which the citizens of Dublin and London were for some time ridiculously employed in the same puerile sport whenever they appeared in the streets; whence to quiz a man came to signify to dupe him sportively with a ludicrous mistake’.” This story is quite silly, but a few details may be worthy of consideration: reference to “a certain great personage” seems to hearken back to the anecdote about Wellington’s pastime in the House of Commons; it is assumed that quiz emerged as the name of a toy (not an unreasonable assumption) and was only later applied to people; finally, Dublin is mentioned in the story before London. Despite the obscurity surrounding the history of quiz, it may be that at some time the Irish occupied themselves with that toy more than the British.
Quiz has always been a “funny word.” This fact needs no additional proof, but a specific circumstance underscores its comic effect. Quiz had the doublet quoz. The change of short i and e to short o seems to affect only playful words or such as are made to sound playful. Thus wedge has the variants wodge and wadge; both designate a particularly big or bulky lump. In similar fashion, freshman has yielded frosh.
Regardless of whether quiz began its life as a coinage by a university wit or as a street name of a popular toy, we may ask how the sound complex q-u-i-z occurred to its inventor. English words ending in z (buzz razzmatazz, showbiz, fizz, and so forth) usually lack dignity. Likewise, sizzle, puzzle, dazzle, razzle-dazzle, and their ilk, though not vulgar, are showy. By contrast, the influence of squeeze or question (I am repeating a hypothesis by an eminent scholar) seems unlikely. If quiz reminds us of any other word, it is, first and foremost, whiz. This is what Skeat thought. The Century Dictionary followed Skeat but went further. It assumed that the first quiz was a toy but considered quiz to be a dialectal variant of whiz. I think there is no need to refer to regional speech here. Whiz is an excellent name for a toy and for anything that makes one feel giddy. Consider how quickly our computer wizzes (wiz was an abbreviation of wizard) turned into whizzes. Quiz may have been a sound symbolic formation of the same order as whiz or a deliberate alteration of whiz: new merchandise needed a new but evocative name. We would be better off if we knew who made and sold quizzes, and where. Can the history of gig shed additional light on the origin of quiz? Perhaps it can. Wait until next Wednesday.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”