The word quiz is of unknown origin. There are several different senses of quiz, which may or may not be etymologically related.
The oldest sense is that of a strange or eccentric person. It’s pretty much archaic today, but survives in the adjective quizzical. This sense dates to 1782 when it appears in The Early Diary of Frances Burney for 24 June of that year:
He’s a droll quiz, and I rather like him.
By 1796, quiz was being used as a verb meaning to ridicule. From The Campaigns 1793-4:
And quiz every blockhead accounted a boar.
The sense that we’re most familiar with today, a verb meaning to question or to test, appears in the mid-19th century. It first appears in 1847 in Robert Southey’s The Doctor:
She com back an’ quiesed us.
The sense of a test appears in 1867 in a letter by William James:
Occasional review articles, etc., perhaps giving ‘quizzes’ in anatomy and physiology...may help along.
This later sense of to question or to test, and the related noun, may be from the earlier sense of a strange person, or it could be a separate coinage. It first appears in English dialectal speech and could be from the English dialect verb quiset, meaning to question, which in turn is probably a clipping of inquisite, an archaic verb meaning to inquire. Another possibility is that this sense comes from the Latin qui es, meaning who are you?
There is a famous anecdote that gives a false etymology for the word. The story goes that in in the late 18th century, Dublin theater owner James Daly made a bet that he could introduce a word into the language within twenty-four hours. He then went out and hired a bunch of street urchins to write the word quiz, which was a nonsense word, on walls around the city of Dublin. Within a day, the word was common currency and had acquired a meaning—since no one knew what it meant, everyone thought it was some sort of test—and Daly had some extra cash in his pocket. It’s a fun story, but it’s clearly not true. The term does not appear in Ireland, but in England and the sense meaning to test does not appear for another half century.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton