September 16, 2013

Case File #013.09.16: QUIZ

The ultimate origins of the word quiz are lost in the mists of history, but that hasn't stopped people from offering up a few ideas. One older story purports that the word was invented in the eighteenth century by a Dublin theater owner who, fancying himself a crack neologist, won a bet that his new word would be in wide use within forty-eight hours of its coining, and though this tale has been circulated for at least two hundred years, not a single shred of evidence exists to support it. A more recent hypothesis suggests that quiz was derived from the Latin quis, which was a pronoun meaning “what,” “who,” or “which” and was often used as an interrogative. And while this idea appears to be more logical and historically sound than the older one, most experts dismiss it as a piece of etymological casuistry because it flies in the face of what little actually is known about the background of the word. You see, when the noun quiz first appeared in the English lexicon around 1780, it meant “an odd or eccentric person,” and its derivative verb sense—which came into use about fifteen years later—meant “to mock, jeer, or ridicule.” It wasn't until circa 1850 that the verb came to mean “to question or interrogate” and “to give a student an informal test or examination”—the noun sense of “a brief test or examination” took another decade or so to show up—but what's really interesting is that nobody can figure out for certain why this semantic shift occurred, though the etymologists behind the venerable Oxford English Dictionary have suggested that the change may have been influenced by the long-established and similar-sounding adjective inquisitive.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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