The inventor of the quiz, who benefits from the Olympics, and the very first quisling.
This week I found myself talking to one of my customers about his collection of newspaper cuttings, for it was a collection of a type that I had never seen before.
It turned out that my customer collected quizzes that appeared in newspapers and magazines. Her aim, she said, was ultimately to re-issue these quizzes in book form in order to help students of social activity in the past. But because of copyright laws she felt it would only be legally safe to do so some 25 years after the quiz was first published.
Hence a mighty collection of quizzes cut out from newspapers and magazines and stored in our warehouse.
I looked at a few sample pages from 20 years ago and realised how difficult it was going to be to answer these quizzes, because they often dealt with topics that were no longer of general interest.
But then the big question struck me. Why do we like quizzes? I mean, they are on TV all the time, lots of websites run them, everyone publishes Christmas quizzes, and as for crosswords, they seem to be as popular as ever.
So what is it about the quiz that entertains so much? I asked my customer and she immediately settled into a history of the quiz.
The word “quiz” she said, went back to the 18th century, at which time it meant an “odd or eccentric person.” A variation occurred in the 1940s when the term Quisling was used to mean a person who betrayed his own country and became a leader for the other side. This word (my informant hastened to point out) had nothing to do with the “quiz” but was actually taken from the name of the Norwegian Vidkun Quisling, who assisted Nazi Germany as it conquered his own country. It thus had nothing to do with our discussion, but was a question that often popped up in quizzes. I dutifully made a note.
So, having established what was and what was not to do with a quiz, we moved onto the issue of why we are so enamoured with them.
Apparently (or so I was told) in ancient times tribal leaders would set quizzes for other members of the clan. The aim was to pass the time of day when there was precious little to do and to ensure that talk didn’t move to discussions of why one of the other tribal members should take over from the current leader.
“I thought ancient societies told each other great myths and legends or sang songs of heroic deeds of the past while sitting in front of log fires,” I protested.
“You’ve been watching Noggin the Nog,” my customer said, and as the customer is always right, I let it pass.
“But surely,” I said trying another approach, “in the most civilised societies, such as Ancient Greece, they had races and wrestling and the like – the great sporting gatherings that eventually became the Olympics, not quizzes.”
She shook her head and gave me a sad smile. “The Olympics were invented by building contractors. When they had nothing much to build they would indeed suggest holding such gatherings, and cooked up the idea of inviting all the young men from across the land to compete. Everyone would say ‘What a great idea’.”
“But then the builders would cunningly say, ‘But if we are having all these great visitors to our fair city, we must show them how wealthy and powerful we are. We can’t just have them running up the high street, we need to show them grand sporting arenas where everyone can gather to witness the event.
“’And we shall need some buildings to house the competitors too.’
“But that, like quisling, has nothing to do with the quiz. No, the quiz was to keep people occupied. And then, once the quiz was complete, one person was awarded the grand prize, and immediately told to go and take his knowledge to share it with the next village. That ensured that the cleverest people in the tribe were gradually exiled so that they could not become a direct threat to the leader.
“Today, there is a different reason, for it is vitally important that the television companies keep their audiences while under attack from the internet. To do this they have to show their viewers that they, the TV programme producers, know more than the audience otherwise people would say, ‘we don’t need TV – we know more than they do so we can entertain ourselves.’ That would be a disaster.
“So they run quizzes to show their audience how stupid they are, and thus how much they need to stay tuned to that particular channel to learn what’s what.”
“Then what you are saying,” I replied, “is that the quiz originally was intended to weed out the bright member of the community and send him into exile, while today it is there just to show TV viewers how stupid they are, and that they need to stay tuned to the channel to understand how to live their lives.”
She agreed that was it.
I must say it was not an argument I was totally happy with, but, on the other hand, my customers are always quite right in everything they say.
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