Unlike the story of its coinage, the word Quoz did not stick around for long. It appeared suddenly, was briefly but popularly used in songs, plays, and magazines, and then vanished. After 1800, it is occasionally referenced in print, but no longer ever used.

The citations listed in the OED are a good proportion of the uses of Quoz still in existence.

quoz, n. (and int.)

colloquial (depreciative). Now historical.

An odd or ridiculous person or thing; (with plural agreement) people or things of this kind. Also as int.: expressing incredulity or contempt. Cf. quiz n. 1.

Etymology: Origin uncertain; perhaps a variant of quiz n., although the reverse could also be the case, or the two words could be parallel developments from a common (unidentified) source.

Festival of Momus (new ed.) 113 Small as well as great talk declares it a poz, That the tippy and the twaddle must give way to the quoz.
Bystander 93 Mr. World [sc. a newspaper] might retort that Mr. Herald was a Quoz, and a low print.
J. Edwin in Muses Banquet 68 Hum’d and then humbug’d, Twaddle, tippy, poz; All have had their day—but now must yield to Quoz.
F. Burney Camilla IV. vii. xiii. 200 ‘The quoz of the present season are beyond what a man could have hoped to see!’ ‘Quoz! What’s Quoz, nephew?’..‘Sometimes we say quiz, my good sir.’
in Spirit of Public Jrnls. (1803) 6. 197 At length it was announced, that Pic-Nic, like Quoz, which was chalked some years ago on windows and doors, really meant nothing.
C. Mackay Mem. Pop. Delusions I. 325 Many years ago the favourite phrase (for, though but a monosyllable, it was a phrase in itself) was Quoz.
Amer. Speech 2 89/1 When mischievous urchins wished to annoy passersby, and incidentally create a little fun for their comrades, they would look the stranger in the face and cry out ‘Quoz!’
London Rev. Bks. 22 Feb. 34/2 The short-lived, inscrutable, vaguely insulting expressions heard in the 19th-century streets included ‘Quoz’, ‘Walker!’, ‘What a shocking bad hat!’ and ‘Has your mother sold her mangle?’


Oxford English Dictionary Online (login required)

The distribution of citations given by the dictionary are not always a good reflection of the pattern of usage across the years, but after many hours scouring Google Books and other full-text archives, I’m pretty sure the lexicographers at the OED didn’t miss much except for the articles in The World. Quoz was first used in a flurry from 1790 to the end of the 18th century, sparsely throughout the 19th (often as a pseudonym or satirical surname), and then almost all subsequent uses have been entirely lifted from Mackay – as in the American Speech paper, and in Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography, which is the book being reviewed by the LRB in the 2001 citation.

Nevertheless, for a brief glorious moment, Quoz was the meme of the moment, celebrated in song.

1790: Mr Edwin’s Quoz Song

The song “Quoz”, from The Muses Banquet, or Vocal Repository (1790) was published in a number of collections, as well as in newspapers in the UK and the USA. The songbooks credit the noted comic actor Mr. John Edwin, who died in 1790. His entry in the biographical dictionary of the London stage gives a thorough history of his career, and says that most of the songs credited to him were in fact written by the dramatist John O’Keefe, although Edwin definitely performed the Quoz song at least once, on August 27th, 1789, less than two weeks after the first chalkings. Less reliable, but more colourful, his authorised biography of 1791 provides a wealth of dubious details about his life, and includes (on pages 85-93) some pontifications (by another actor, a Mr Remington) on the subject of the fashions in slang, which aside from lacking all mention of Quoz bear a distinct resemblance to the lyrics below. The biography is not known for its verisimilitude, and it seems probable that the lyrics were worked into the biography rather than a borrowed monologue worked into the song.


Sung by Mr. Edwin, at the Theatre Royal, in the Hay-market.

(Tune—Stony Batter.)

Hey for buckish words, for phrases we’ve a passion
Immensely great, and little once; were all the fashion;
Hum’d and then humbug’d, Twaddle, tippy, poz;
All had their day—but now must yield to Quoz.

Walk about the town, each time you turn your head, Sir,
Pop staring in your phiz, is Q, U, O, and Z, Sir,
Cry’d Madam Dip to deary, it’s monstrous scandaloz,
To write on peoples shutters that shameful, nasty, Quoz,

Once it was the Barber, for ev’ry thing that’s right;
The Shaver knock’d the Barber down quickly out of sight,
Now we’ve got a new word, how invented ’twas,
If you ask, I’ll tell——, my answer, Sir, is Quoz.

The hobby-horse of late, we rode about with speed,
For drinking, wenching, gaming, ’twas the word, indeed;
Then Macaroni, Bore, and Rage, never sure the like was,
Yet all that sort of thing gave way to little cunning Quoz.

Tipsy, dizzy, muzzy, sucky, groggy, muddled,
Bosky, blind as Cloe; mops and brooms, and fuddled,
Florid, torrid, horrid, stayboz, hayboz, layboz
Words with terminations not so good as Quoz.

But when Quozzy came, Tippy, Bore, and Twaddle,
Bucks of blust’ring fame could not keep their saddle;
One attempts to rally—bully Quiz it was,
But by night Sally dubs him little Quoz!

There’s a jack to roast your meat, a jack to hold your liquor,
Jack upon the green to amuse the vicar;
Jacks of various sorts—Jack’s a quiz because
Jack gives way to Jill, and so does Quiz to Quoz.

Some may think it French, some may call it Latin;
Some give in this meaning, others will give that in;
Mean it what it will, or sense or non compos,
The meaning, I should think—the meaning must be——Quoz.

Suppose we say ’tis drinking—suppose it means a dinner——
Suppose a Methodist—suppose a wicked sinner;
To finish my suppose—suppose I make a pause,
I’ve hit it now, ’tis thank ye—and so, good people, Quoz.

As the song, and later citations note, it was always a puzzle as to what ‘Quoz’ meant. Even in the two citations that actually use the word Quoz, it is impossible to tell precisely what it means, except it is clearly an insult, and apparently interchangeable with Quiz. Mackay tells us it has no meaning, but a little digging will unearth a few contemporary uses, mostly in plays from the 1790s, and those authors must have had something in mind.

Of the surviving uses of Quoz from the 18th century, the passage from Camilla is my favourite. Please enjoy/forgive the long excerpt.

Lynmere ordered some shrimps.

There were none.

“There’s nothing to be had! ‘Tis a wretched county this!”

“You’ll get nice shrimps at Southampton, sir, by what hear,” said Mr. Dubster. “Tom Hicks says he has been sick with ’em many a day, he’s eat such a heap. They gets ’em by hundreds and hundreds, and hundreds at a time.”

“Pray, nephew, how long shall you stay? because of my nieces coming back at the same time.”

“A fortnight’s enough to tire me anywhere, sir. Pray what do you all do with yourselves here after breakfast? What’s your mode?”

“Mode, nephew? we’ve got no particular mode that ever I heard of. However, among so many of us, I think it’s a little hard, if you can find nothing to say to us; all, in a manner, your relations too.”

“We take no notice of relations now, sir; that’s out.”

“I’m sorry for it, nephew, for a relation’s a relation, whether you take notice of him or not. And there’s ne’er an ode in Virgil will tell you to the contrary, as I believe.”

A short silence now ensued, which was broken by a sigh from Sir Hugh, who ejaculated to himself, though aloud, “I can’t but think what my poor friend Westwyn will do, if his son’s come home in this manner! caring for nobody, but an oyster, or a shrimp; . . . unless it’s a newspaper!”

“And what should a man care for else, my good old friend, in a desert place such as this?”

“Good old friend!’ repeated the baronet; “to be sure, I’m not very young. . . . However, as to that . . . but you mean no harm, I know, for which reason I can’t be so ill-natured as to take it ill. However, if poor Westwyn is served in this . . . way. . . He’s my dearest friend that I’ve got, out of us all here, of my own kin, and he’s got only one son, and he sent him to foreign parts only for cheapness; and if he should happen to like nothing he can get at home, it won’t answer much in saving, to send out for things all day long.”

“O don’t be troubled, sir; Westwyn’s but a poor creature. He’ll take up with anything. He lived within his allowance the whole time. A mighty poor creature.”

“I’m glad of it! glad of it, indeed!” cried Sir Hugh, with involuntary eagerness; “I should have been sorry if my poor good old friend had had such disappointment.”

“Upon my honour,” cried Lymnere, piqued, “the quoz of the present season are beyond what a man could have hoped to see!”

“Quoz! what’s quoz, nephew?”

“Why, it’s a thing there’s no explaining to you sort of gentlemen; and sometimes we say quiz, my good old Sir.”

Sir Hugh, now, for almost the first time in his life, felt seriously affronted. His utmost lenity could not palliate the wilful disrespect of his language; and, with a look of grave displeasure, he answered, “Really, nephew, I can’t but say, I think you’ve got rather a particular odd way of speaking to persons. As to talking so much about people’s being old, you’d do well to consider that’s no fault in anybody; except one’s years, which is what we can’t be said to help.”

“You descant too much upon words, Sir; we have left off, now, using them with such prodigious precision. It’s quite over, Sir.”

“O, my dear Clermont!’ cried Sir Hugh, losing his short movement of anger in a more tender sensation of concern, “how it goes to my heart to see you turn out such a jackanapes!”

Camilla — Frances Burney

This passage comes from chapter thirteen of book seven (the novel is… quite long), but Sir Hugh is called “a quiz, … or a quoz, or some such word” in a couple of other places, never knowing the precise meaning, but taking it “rather unkind” nevertheless.

The only other cited use in a sentence is from The By-stander, or, Universal Weekly Expositor, a short-lived periodical published from August 1789 to February 1790, edited by dramatist and songwriter Charles Dibdin. Naturally the magazine had a strong focus on the theatre, and the section in which Quoz makes an appearance is in an imagined debate between the newspapers of the day who have taken the step of treating theatrical reviewing in the same way as politics.

Mr. Herald might complain, when he did not understand Mr. World‘s arguments—which indeed nobody ever can—that he was Suborned; and Mr. World might retort that Mr. Herald was a Quoz, and a low print. Mr. Times might enumerate how often Mr. Post had been bought over, and Mr. Post might pun and say, if the ravings of a certain paper were to be credited, it must be sad Times indeed.

The By-stander—Charles Dibdin

So Quoz was coined, and maybe it meant Quiz, or maybe nothing at all, and then it was soon forgotten.

Quoz erat demonstrandum.


The history of usage of Quoz and Quiz follow quite different patterns. Quiz emerges slowly, with a tiny handful of uses between 1783 and 1790, out of collegial publications and into the papers and onto the stage and becomes acknowledged slang and so on. Quoz comes out of nowhere, literally no mentions at all prior to August 1789, and then a dozen before the end of the year (mostly as pseudonyms in letters to editors, or in comments about where the word came from). Its appearance was sudden and surprising, and widely commented upon. Perhaps the most respectable appearance Quoz ever got was in Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, although later editors inappropriately gloss it as ‘quiz’.

We can guess what happened afterwards. The Quoz meme (especially as a forced meme), never really stood a chance. After a literally overnight rise to fame, it was doomed to burn out just as rapidly. I can’t help wondering how Edwin’s song was received, two weeks later. Was it still in the ascendant, naturally part of the street joke, or already hopelessly dated?

Quoz survived for a while in the nineteenth century as a pseudonym for those writing to newspapers, or the occasional poet. And then as the name of a character in Washington Irving’s satirical Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent.. Later, it was used in the USA as a mocking name for Dickens. Boz (a pen-name previously used by Dickens) became Quoz, and Charles Dickens became Quarles (“quarrels”) Quickens, thus cleverly implying both oddness and quarrelsomeness, traits for which Dickens had a reputation abroad.

After Mackay, reference to Quoz all but dried up. There are a few dictionaries, particularly those focussing on slang, which record it. I suspect a study of their genealogies would be mildly interesting. The context of the word however, was mostly lost, and recent dictionaries define it as something like: “a strange or absurd thing or person”. Something like the original definition of quiz, but with much of the insult lost.

I suppose that is the path which resulted in it coming to the attention of William Least Heat-Moon, who called his 2008 book “Roads to Quoz”. The opening chapter begins with a paean to words beginning with Q, and rhapsodises on Quoz in particular.

So that brings us to quoz: a noun, both singular and plural, referring to anything strange, incongruous, or peculiar; at its heart is the unknown, the mysterious. It rhymes with Oz. To a traveler, it’s often the highest quaesitum. For me, everything — whether object, person, or event — when seen clearly in the depths of its existence, in its quiddity, is quoz, and every road, every alley, the hall to your parlor, the course of a creek, the track of a comet, all are a route to quoz for any traveler, any querist willing to question, to go in quest, to ask the cosmic question of medieval church drama: Quem quaeritis? Whom do you seek, O pilgrim?

The Roads to Quoz—William Least Heat-Moon

Quoz as an attractive curiosity was not the intention that the 18th century London public had when they called it out in the street. Quoz was queer and peculiar in a turn-the-nose-up kind of way that has been lost in the two century game of slang-dictionary telephone. A search for Quoz would be nonsensical to the 18th century theatre-goers who laughed along with John Edwin.

Heat-Moon has contributed to the story of Quoz in another respect though, by coining 250 derivations that might be of use in rehabilitating the quoz root alongside quiz. Excerpted here.

Though I like the nobler sentiment, I quite prefer Quoz the meme, the stupid nonsensical shout that exists only as a vector for derisive connotation. It’s a reminder that the internet meme factory is not a new phenomenon, and that there have always been words which there’s no explaining to you sort of gentlemen.


On the Origin of the “Origin of Quiz” in the Origin of “Quoz”

If the Quiz origin story in Gleanings and Reminiscences didn’t come from reality, where did it come from?

There’s a trail of that story in publications throughout the nineteenth century. Curio columns were the Reddit of the day, with crumbs of factoids dug up and reposted over and over, to fill the column inches. In 1862, Frank Porter wrote up the story for Duffy’s Hibernian Magazine, but an abbreviated version had appeared in the same publication less than two years earlier. Before that it had appeared in Sharpe’s Magazine (1846), Walker’s Dictionary (1836), the Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction (1835)

But there is an earlier and even slimmer form of the story, published in the English digest paper The Kaleidoscope in 1830, still dating it to ~1790, but now locating the event in ‘the metropolis’, i.e. London, and making no mention of Richard Daly.

The term Quiz, for instance, was first introduced about 40 years ago, by being, in consequence of a wager, chalked in the course of one night, on the shop-shutters, in most of the principal streets of the metropolis.

The Kaleidoscope; or, Literary and scientific mirror, 11:535 (Sept. 28 1830) p.103

Surely if this is a real event there are contemporary accounts? Nothing, as far as I can see, in the Dublin papers, but there’s this snippet from the London paper The World:

This queer word originated, we understand, in a bet. Two gentlemen betted a dinner, to be given by the loser, at the London Tavern, that one of them should fix upon any odd absurd expression, which should, in a given time, become the Town Talk. The other laid he did not.

Quoz was the word chosen; and the bet has been acknowledged to be lost.

The Winner began by writing, with chalk, the word Quoz, upon various doors.

The World, Issue 816 (Aug 15, 1789) p.2


As Charles Mackay documented, half a century later, Quoz was a Thing.

London is peculiarly fertile in this sort of phrases, which spring up suddenly, no one knows exactly in what spot, and pervade the whole population in a few hours, no one knows how. Many years ago the favourite phrase (for, though but a monosyllable, it was a phrase in itself) was Quoz. This odd word took the fancy of the multitude in an extraordinary degree, and very soon acquired an almost boundless meaning. When vulgar wit wished to mark its incredulity, and raise a laugh at the same time, there was no resource so sure as this popular piece of slang. When a man was asked a favour which he did not choose to grant, he marked his sense of the suitor’s unparalleled presumption by exclaiming Quoz! When a mischievous urchin wished to annoy a passenger, and create mirth for his comrades, he looked him in the face, and cried out Quoz! and the exclamation never failed in its object. When a disputant was desirous of throwing a doubt upon the veracity of his opponent, and getting summarily rid of an argument which he could not overturn, he uttered the word Quoz, with a contemptuous curl of his lip, and an impatient shrug of his shoulders. The universal monosyllable conveyed all his meaning, and not only told his opponent that he lied, but that he erred egregiously if he thought that any one was such a nincompoop as to believe him. Every alehouse resounded with Quoz; every street-corner was noisy with it, and every wall for miles around was chalked with it.

But, like all other earthly things, Quoz had its season, and passed away as suddenly as it arose, never again to be the pet and the idol of the populace. A new claimant drove it from its place, and held undisputed sway till, in its turn, it was hurled from its pre-eminence, and a successor appointed in its stead.

Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds—Charles Mackay (1841)

Amazingly, The World documented the Quoz phenomenon in several columns, and thanks to their dedication to such metropolitan trivialities, we have the rare treat of being able to pinpoint the exact day, two hundred years ago, that a new word appeared.

Tuesday, August 11th, 1789

Putting this strange word upon the doors of various people, seems to the the joke of the moment. The following oddities were found on Sunday morning on the doors that follow:

  • Lord Loughborough‘s—The Lord with the dark eyebrows will do your business; so take care—Quoz !
  • Lord Stormont‘s—Vestris is nothing to you when you rise to—Quoz !
  • Mr. Burke‘s—Doctor Willis is coming!—and fortunately for the country—you will soon be in a strait—Quoz !
  • Sherry‘s—Can’t you keep time without meetings at a watchmaker’s? Don’t you take me?—Quoz !
  • Major Scott‘s—Faithful, diligent, active, little—Quoz !
  • Charles Fox‘s—Dark, dismal—Quoz !
  • Sir John Aubrey‘s—Think of Buckinghamshire! very soon you will be—out of—Quoz !
  • Old Q‘s—Keep the eye you have—fixed on your present side! if you should think of again changing no Party would receive a—Quoz !
  • My Lord of Landaff—You are a good man: In chemistry, divinity, you have a good name: but as to your politics they are all—Quoz !
The World, Issue 812 (Aug 11, 1789) p.2

Hard to imagine this happening to the doors of members of the Privy Council these days. Hard to imagine any graffiti these days using such punctuation.

Saturday, August 15th, 1789

This queer word originated, we understand, in a bet. Two gentlemen betted a dinner, to be given by the loser, at the London Tavern, that one of them should fix upon any odd absurd expression, which should, in a given time, become the Town Talk. The other laid he did not.

Quoz was the word chosen; and the bet has been acknowledged to be lost.

The Winner began by writing, with chalk, the word Quoz, upon various doors.

Future wits and more ingenious heads, improved on the idea, and added various other strokes of humour to the original Quoz.

The following doors have had additional hits, since our last publication.

  • Mrs. Abingdon‘s LodgingsBelinda, Arabella, Araminta, and youth that is immortal, is all—Quoz.
  • Lady A──r‘s—A man with two faces was once called Janus. What shall we call a Lady?—Quoz.
  • Counsellor Garrow‘s—Give you a bad cause and a cross-examination, and nobody does more than—Quoz.
  • Hon. Mr Erskine‘s—When you get your true John for a Juryman, he believes you are serious and in earnest. But if you lay hold of a line a little beyond that—why then—Quiz finds out—Quoz.
The World, Issue 816 (Aug 15, 1789) p.2

So there was a wager! But it seems unlikely that any record survives of who made it.

There does remain a slight possibility that the London Quozzing of 1789 provided inspiration for Daly to attempt a repeat performance in Dublin, using ‘Quiz’ instead — indeed, it’s not completely impossible that Daly did it first in Dublin and inspired the Londoners. Certainly he’d have thought it a splendid way to win a bet, for someone with a dozen stage-hands at his beck and call. But the decades-long gap in the chain of anecdote, and a lack of contemporary Irish accounts make me sceptical of the possibility. More likely that mangled and embellished memories of the Quoz event were reconstructed around a more memorable character and a more familiar word.

Saturday, August 29th, 1789

Quoz, has found its way to the doors of Margate—On Hastings‘s was written—D—n the Charges, and the Bow BegumsQuoz

The World, Issue 828 (Aug 15, 1789) p.3

Right from the start, people offered various explanations of where this new word had come from.

Friday, September 11, 1789

Origin of the present Word Quoz ——

Shortly after the destruction of the Bastille, the most valorous men of France fled from their country, like so many lions from the crowing of one solitary cock. Arriving in the Downs, on board some of the Dieppe fishing-boats, they made signals for the Dover pilots to come off; when these people (who are justly titled sharks) came on board the French vessels, they saw by appearances that the passengers were none of the common sort of men; they asked very extravagant prices for brining them and their baggage on shore; upon which the Frenchmen shrugged up their shoulders, and fore and aft went the general cry of “Quoi—Quoi—Quoi;” (in English, What, What, What). The pilots immediately cried out, “ Damn your Quoz, Quoz, Quoz—speak that we may understand you, and don’t bore us with your parly Vouse and Quoz”

Public Advertiser, Issue 17208 (Sept 11, 1789)

Tuesday, September 15, 1789

The origin of Quoz (to judge from its general application) may be referred to Tony Lumpkin‘s song,

Their quaes, their quos, and their quods,
They’re all but a parcel of Pigeons

Oracle Bell’s New World; Issue 92 (Sept 15, 1789)

Wednesday, September 16, 1789


The lettering of the 4th volume of Chamber’s Cyclopædia, edited by Dr. Rees, containing Q—Z, the first and last alphabeticals of its content, led one date in Egerton‘s shop to this whimsical word.

Morning Star, Issue 185 (Sept 16, 1789)

None of these derivations are particularly plausible. More likely the Big Dictionary is right, that Quoz was an adaptation of Quiz, already used in certain circles, but not widespread, and ripe for piggy-backing. It seems unlikely that two such similar words would arise wholly independently in the same decade. Note that in the account given in The World, there was no requirement for it to be a new or nonsense word, only an “absurd expression”. That might well have allowed for the reuse of an existing but strange phrase. What better choice to mock the whole of London with, in 1789, than ‘Quiz’? Oh, very well, if it must be a wholly invented word, my good sir, let us say ‘Quoz’! But we’ll never know for sure why “Quoz” was chosen as the “odd absurd expression” to force. And I don’t suppose we will ever know who was responsible.

On The Origin of “Quiz”

There is an untrue story about the origin of the word ‘quiz’. The next few paragraphs are all about that story, and about the early uses of the word quiz which undermine it, because I did the research years ago and want to make it worthwhile, but many people beat me to publication. By a lot. New information, such as it is, is in the next post.

The story goes that a Dublin theatre proprietor by the name of Richard Daly made a bet that he could, within forty-eight hours, make a nonsense word known throughout the city, and that the public would supply a meaning for it. After a performance one evening, he gave his staff cards 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 a short time it had become part of the language.

The most detailed account of this supposed exploit (in F. T. Porter’s Gleanings and Reminiscences, 1875) gives its date as 1791.

Oxford Dictionaries — What is the origin of the word ‘quiz’?

F. T. Porter’s Gleanings and Reminiscences (1875) is an autobiography, interspersed with anecdotes and stories picked up over a lifetime of Porter’s work as police officer in Dublin. The story of ‘quiz’ is one of them, supposedly passed on from multiple witnesses to the event. Porter had previously published a retelling of the story in Duffy’s Hibernian Magazine (Nov 1862).

As others have pointed out, it seems very unlikely that the story is truly the origin of the word. We have evidence of the word ‘quiz’ in use for years before 1791, the earliest reference in connection with Daly is from 1835 (see below), and there seems to be no contemporary account. Rather, the wealth of full-text digital archives have made it possible to figure out the true origins of ‘quiz’ in the public school and university slang of the late eighteenth century. The OED revised their entries (noun, verb) a little while ago, and added a couple of excellent early citations.

1780: An Incredible Bore

The earliest is from a pamphlet called An Incredible Bore: A Familiar Epistle; from Roger Wittol Esq: of — College, Oxford, to Mr. John Hedgings, in the Country, published pseudonymously in 1780. Wittol’s letter is, in the words of one reviewer, “eighteen-pennyworth of nonsense from an Oxford buck to his friend in the country… To go through the poem, as we have done, is—a bore indeed.” But it was written to explain the university slang of the day, which is handy for us here in the 21st century.

Pray read with attention this bagatelle o’er,
And learn, what you wanted, the meaning of Bore.
Ah! John, since I left you with farmer’s fat daughters,
To play at hot-cockles, and guess at their garters,
I have seen a new world, and of which I dare say
You have no more idea than I of good hay;
Our language, my lad, you would scarce understand,
And I’ll give you a specimen clean out of hand.

T’other morning I threw off my chains with my gown,
Took a place in the Dilly and dangled to town;
(You must know ’twas a Scheme, as we knowing ones say,
‘Tis a bore to be there in a d—‘d modest way)
When I found myself place’d ‘twixt a chandler’s fat wife,
And a fellow who (damme) knew nothing of life.
Methinks ’tis a pleasantish day, says the dame,
To which I assented, the Quiz did the same:
She wish’d that these outlandish troubles would clear,
For this ‘Merikin war made the candles so dear.—

Our Quiz, with a head plaister’d o’er like twelfth-cake,
And a large sausage curl just above a black neck,
Had a ditto sky-blue on, except that his breeches
Were pink, and his boot-tops were work’d with white stitches;

An Incredible Bore: A Familiar Epistle; from Roger Wittol Esq: of — College, Oxford, to Mr. John Hedgings, in the Country

And so we are introduced to phrases like Knock’d me down, Letch, Spunk, dangled, Scheme, and of course, the Quiz— a fellow who knew nothing of life, and dressed in a ridiculous fashion.

1783: Advice to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge

More details are offered in a 1783 work, Advice to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Here the anonymous author dispenses some uninvited advice to various persons about the universities, beginning with the Vice Chancellor, then the Proctors, Fellows, etc., and then to the Under Graduates, according to their tribe. I should say, the reviews of this were no kinder than those of Wittol: “A most impotent attempt at wit.”

To the Under Graduates

As the characters and dispositions of Under Graduates are various, some quite contrary to others; I shall be better understood by each, if I divide them into different classes, as they are respectively denominated in the university, and give my advice separately; that all may know how to keep up to their particular characters. They may be included under the general denomination of Quiz, Raph, or Buck. I shall begin first with the Quiz.

To the Quiz.

A Quiz, in the most common acceptation of the word, signifies one who thinks, speaks, or acts differently from the rest of the world in general. But as manners and opinions are as various as mankind, it will be difficult to say, who shall be termed a Quiz, and who shall not; each person indiscriminately applying the name of Quiz to every one who differs from himself; not to lose myself therefore in the labyrinth of opinions, suffice it to say, that those to whom the term has most commonly been applied, have held it in a good sense, and by the skilful alteration of a letter, produced the opinion of Horace in their favour; “Vir bonus est quis.”——Others by the contrary rule, have held it in an opposite sense.

Advice to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge—Anon.

The idea that everyone is someone else’s quiz reoccurred nine years later in the lyrics of the Quiz Song, written by Charles Dibdin in 1792, as the word gained a wider currency. “Those to whom the term has most commonly been applied” do seem to be a well-defined sort of person:

1782: Essays, moral and literary

In Essays, Moral and Literary, writer and schoolmaster Vicesimus Knox (not a pseudonym) describes the specific species of otherness that identifies the ‘Quiz’, in the course of throwing some shade on the business of academia as a whole.

Even doctors, professors, tutors, and lecturers, industriously avoid all topics connected with the species of learning and science which they profess, and most agreeably condescend to expatiate, in the common and combination room, on dogs, horses, and all the refined amusements of Granta and Rhedycina. Not but that there are a few who take a pleasure in conversing on letters; but they are solitary mortals, and themselves are stigmatized, in the cant language of the place, with the name of Quizzes, and their conversation, with that of an insufferable Bore.

If our ingenious youth should be transplanted from the nursery of a school into the army, he will find the conversation, in almost every respect, similar to that of the university. There will, indeed, be this difference, that as letters are not the particular business of a military life, they will sometimes be the topic of conversation among military men; whereas, in the university, they are entirely laid aside, lest they should subject the academic to the imputation of pedantry; an imputation deemed infinitely more disgraceful, than that of genteel ignorance and fashionable debauchery.

Essays moral and literary—Vicesimus Knox

1782: Charlotte Burney’s Diary

One of the more charming early sources that uses ‘quiz’, rather than mentioning or describing it — and which for a long time was the OED’s earliest citation — is the 1889 edition of The early diary of Frances Burney, 1768-1778 vol. 2. The usage comes from a journal fragment written by Frances’s sister Charlotte, in 1782, proving how quickly the word moved beyond university jargon to a wider currency.

Thursday, June 24th, Quarter day.

The Percys have been in town and I and my father and Fanny have been and spent an evening with them, where we met Dr. Lort, whose nose I am sure has never grown since he was six years old, nipped in the bud ; but he’s a droll quiz, and I rather like him.

Early Diary of Frances Burney, Journal Fragment—Charlotte Burney


A satirical piece in an edition of the Eton paper Microcosm puts it at Eton College in 1787 (I find, most unfortunately for myself, that I come under the denomination of a quiz. — do read the full text), and also mentions the connection to vir bonus est quis.. Although by 1798, it seems the Etonians had moved on. George Colman’s 1798 play Heir at Law has it at Westminster School (A gig? Umph! that’s an Eton phrase—the Westminster call it Quiz).

In 1785, a “Quis” with an S, appears in the play The Spanish Rivals (spoken by a Spaniard, if that’s relevant?). Here it is used to agree with the sentiment that a gentleman is “a queer stick to make a thivel of”, which presumably needs no further explanation.

We’ll never know whether the ‘Vir Bonus’ etymology is at all true. It seems possible? These early citations all support the idea of an origin in Latinate college slang, rather than a brand new invention of London or Dublin gamblers. The use of a z at the end of a word is a common feature of 18th century slang (as in phiz and poz), also suggesting the corruption of an existing word rather than a new coinage, and the Latin root quis seems to be a good candidate, maybe influenced by the English soundalike inquisitive.

Many of the early usages of the word in print are explicitly concerned with explaining the usage and providing an etymology. The word is novel, true, but this is a period when new words were being introduced into English quite regularly, with international trade bringing new foodstuffs, plant and animal species, and developments in science and engineering labelling things in new ways: not many of them got introduced in lengthy comic poems, songs, and satires. What we see with quiz is authors writing to explain and legitimise a new-identified concept. A concept which looks a lot like an 18th century analog of ‘nerd’.

So we see the word’s meaning shift and expand from meaning an odd person, to the act of taunting someone for being an odd person, to taunting in general, by asking endless impertinent questions, and so on to the current style of questioning. Anyway, that’s all documented in plentiful detail elsewhere. I have other questions.

For TOURISTS and TRAVELLERS in Foreign lands

One of my favourite genres of book is that of the really old foreign-language phrasebook. They’re a thin but illuminating window into so many things: who is travelling, and why; who they are talking to, and why; what expectations they have. If there isn’t a PhD-thesis-turned-monograph on the subject, there certainly should be. My fondness is much shallower: the de-contextualised expectations of the historical traveller can be extremely funny.

From the perspective of having a jolly good laugh, older phrasebooks are to be preferred. We aren’t interested in the modern phrasebooks for the modern city-breaker, or the hippies’ guides to Asia, or even the WW2/occupation-era phrasebooks for military personnel moving about the world. On the other hand, too far back, and the only people travelling are traders and diplomats, whose phrasebooks are too pragmatic for much comedy. No, for best results, we want phrasebooks from the height of (the British) empire, the early twentieth century.

I recently acquired a perfect specimen: Marlborough’s Danish, Self-Taught, by W. F. Harvey, M.A. Undated, but the third edition of the “Self-Taught” series seems to have been published in the early 1930s.

Some of the words chosen for inclusion in the vocabulary section are… quite different to those of modern phrasebooks. For example, there is a long section on “Fruit, Trees, Flowers, and Vegetables”, including such everyday examples as vegetable-marrow, myrtle, lily-of-the-valley. There is a page for “Minerals and Metals”, in case one needs to discuss agate, gravel, or the carbuncle. The page for “Mankind; Relations”, includes, as well as the expected familial relation words, translations for “a dwarf”, “a hunchback”, “a giant”. Let’s assume these are for translating fairy-tales.

The choice of phrases to include in each section reveals the intended audience to be the more well-heeled traveller. Some selections:

I want a first-class ticket to …Jeg ⌀nsker en f⌀rste Klasses Billet til …yey eun’sker en feur’ster klahs’ses billet’ til …
Please give him my card Vær saa god at give ham mit Kort vayr soh goh aht gee(ver) ham mit kort
Which is the best hotel?Hvilket er det bedste Hotel?vil’ket air day bester hohtel’?
Can I obtain the exclusive right over the shooting?Kan jeg faa Eneret paa Jagten her?kah(n) ih foh ee’ner-ret poh yahk’ten hair?

In fact, the entire “Shooting” section is pretty great. What kind of shooting can I get here? Any Capercailzie? Let me have a shoot with your gun. How many dogs can you let me have? HOW MANY DOGS? Are the dogs properly trained?? Keep the dogs back! HOL HOON’NENER TIL’-BAHGHER!!

Getting the worst of the upper-class entitlement are the domestic staff. The book has sections for conversations with The Dressmaker, The Shoemaker, and The Laundress. Albeit there are more different ways for these experiences to go badly than to go well, but the book has no suggestions for “good job with that dress”, or “here is a gratuity, my good man”. Instead there are a diverse collection of ways to complain about the service received.

Don’t disappoint meNar mig ikkenar’ mih ik’ker
They hurt my toesDe klemmer mig over Tæernede klem’mer mih ee hay-len ow’er tay’-er-ner ee vrist’en
This is too limpDette er ikke stift nokdet’ter air ik’ker stift nok
See how badly that is doneSe hvor daarligt det er gjortse vor dor’lee day air gheyohrt’
You must take it backDa maa tage det tilbagedee moh tah day tilbah’gher
This is not my handkerchiefDette er ikke mit Lommet⌀rklædedet’ter air ik’ker mit lom’mer-tuer’klay-ther
You have torn my dressDe har revet denne Kjole itudee har ray’vet den’ner keyohl’-er eetoo’

It is also important to be able to express complaints more generally. The section on “Expressions of Surprise, Sorrow, Joy and Anger, &c” has got you covered.

Chapter heading: Expressions of Surprise, Sorrow, Joy, Anger, &c
Indeed! Virkelig! veer’kelee!
Don’t touch!R⌀r det ikke reur day ik’ker
I am quite vexed about itDet plager mig en Delday plah’gher mih en dehl’
I am in a bad temperJeg er i daarligt Hum⌀ryey air ee dor’lee hoomeur’
Hold your tongueTi stilletee stil’ler
You are very wrong De har fuldstændig Uretdee har foolsten’dee oo’ret
How could you do so?Hvorledes kunde De g⌀re det?vor lairth’es koon’ner dee gheu’rer day?
I am ashamed of youJeg skammer mig over Demyey skam’mer mih ow’er dem
For shame!Skam Demskam dem
You are very much to blameDe er meget at dadledee air mih’et aht dahth’ler

If you would like your own copy, so that you too can learn to speak Danish like an entitled Britisher from 90 years ago, there is currently a copy available on Etsy.

More two-letter words for Scrabble

The two-letter word viewer has been updated to include three new two-letter words for 2019. Both the North America (TWL) and International (CSW) lexicons will now include OK and EW. From players, the general reaction to EW was “ok”, and to OK was “ew”. The International lexicon update also includes ZE, the gender-neutral third person singular subjective pronoun. I wonder if the categorisation system needs (or will need) a category of words that are unfamiliar not because they are old but because they are young.

Ruminations on language evolution, the editorial decision-making of lexicon compilation, lawn-defence, etc., are left as an exercise for the reader.

The One Hundred and Twenty-Four Shortest Words in Scrabble

An unhealthy degree of familiarity with the permissible two-letter words is one of the early warning signs of a Scrabble addict. International tournament Scrabble permits 124 two letter words, but only around half of them are everyday words, with the rest an odd mix of variant spellings, foreign-derived obscurities, and written forms of things you didn’t know were words: like the letter R, spelled AR, obviously, or the expression of scepticism produced when first seeing it played, spelled HM (or HMM). For those people who imagine the game is about playing words from one’s own working vocabulary, it can be quite annoying when an opponent drops GU and points smugly at the appropriate page in the definitionless lexicon rather than talking convincingly about their keen interest in Shetland Island folk music.

So, for anyone fed up of being on either end of that kind of conversation, here is a handy semi-interactive visual guide to the two letter words in Scrabble.

Despite usually playing the role of smug GU-player, I have some sympathy for the other point of view. Here’s five 2-letter words doing a bad job of justifying their place in the lexicon:


The Collins dictionary (i.e. International Scrabble) description even says “obsolete form of I”. I chalk this one up to lobbying from players who desperately wanted to be able to play C in a two-letter word.


Collins claims this is a plural form of DEUS. I mean, DEUS isn’t really English either, except as a Plantagenet-era interjection. Is this the foreign word in multiple phrases thing? Though I tip my hat to the scholars trying to make “di ex machina” happen, I am unconvinced by it’s Scrabbleworthiness.


A hypothetical force proposed by Baron Karl von Reichenbach as pervading all nature and accounting for various physical and psychological phenomena. Here’s a brief history. The hypothesis was not very successful. In W. Gregory’s translation of von Reichenbach’s reseaches, we are told “the author has given to the new imponderable the name of Od, a name not possessing any meaning, but admitting of being compounded, according to the genius of the German language.” It didn’t catch on at the time, it’s not going to now, and failed coinages are always a little tragic. Best to lay it to rest.

That kind of universal-fluid-life-force theory was big in the mid-19th century. Bulwer-Lytton’s VRIL is a similar concept, maintaining a similarly dubious place in the lexicon, but its usefulness as a way to dump a V is some compensation.

These subterranean philosophers assert that, by one operation of vril, which Faraday would perhaps call “atmospheric magnetism,” they can influence the variations of temperature—in plain words, the weather; that by other operations, akin to those ascribed to mesmerism, electro-biology, odic force, &c., but applied scientifically through vril conductors, they can exercise influence over minds, and bodies animal and vegetable, to an extent not surpassed in the romances of our mystics.

— Edward Bulwer-Lytton, demonstrating his mastery of both science and prose, in Vril, The Coming Race.


Unusually, it’s the North American lexicon which is dodgy here. The Hasbro dictionary search defines OE as “a whirlwind off the Faeroe Islands”, which definition seems to have been copied verbatim, from dictionary to dictionary, without anyone wondering whether it was still useful.

oe, n. A whirlwind off the Faeroe Islands.
The American Practical Navigator, US Govt. NIMA (19822002)

oe (ō), n. A whirlwind off the Faeroe Islands.
Navigation Dictionary, US Hydrographic Office (1956)

Oe. A violent whirlwind off the Ferroe Islands.
Naval Encyclopaedia, Philadelphia (1881)

OE. An island [from the Ang-Sax.] Oes are violent whirlwinds off the Ferroe Islands, said at times to raise the water in syphons.
The Sailor’s Word-Book, London (1867)

150-year-old copypasta.

Collins defines OE as “grandchild”, a variant of Scots dialect “OY”, and various dictionaries list that meaning, and/or oe, “a small island”. It would be nice if either meaning had citations more recent than the time Walter Scott finished translating his collection of Danish ballads, but at least there’s some evidence that OE was actually used in those senses.


A dialect word for cows, apparently used in Scots and northern dialects. Fair enough, maybe, except the OED’s usage quotations have the word spelled KYE in every instance since 1522. Might be time to retire the shorter variant? Same argument goes for NY and FY, come to think of it. Allowing spelling variants that haven’t been used since the invention of spelling just makes you looks silly.

The Various Versions of Voldemort’s Real Name, Listed In Order of Levenshtein Edit Distance from “Tom Marvolo Riddle”, with additional commentary

I was going to add an explanatory paragraph here, but then I didn’t.

Language Riddle’s Name Lev.Δ J-W.Δ ‘Voldemort’ Anagram
English Tom Marvolo Riddle 0 0.000 I am Lord Voldemort
Estonian Tom Marvolon Riddle 1 0.018 Mina Lord Voldemort
Turkish Tom Marvoldo Riddle 1 0.064 Adim Lord Voldemort
Slovakian Tom Marvoloso Riddle 2 0.033 A som i Lord Voldemort
Portuguese Tom Servolo Riddle 2 0.074 Eis Lord Voldemort
Russian Tom Narvolo Reddl 3 0.088 Lord Volan-de-mort
Basque* Tom Narivoloz Riddle 3 0.137 Lord Voldemort naiz
Spanish Tom Sorvolo Ryddle 3 0.167 Soy Lord Voldemort
German Tom Vorlost Riddle 5 0.105 Ist Lord Voldemort
Czech Tom Rojvol Raddle 5 0.109 Já Lord Voldemort
Ukranian Tom Yarvolod Redl 5 0.119 Ya Lord Voldemort
Italian Tom Orvoloson Riddle 5 0.156 Son io Lord Voldemort
Latin Tom Musvox Ruddle 5 0.248 Sum Dux Voldemort
Bulgarian Tom Mersvoluko Riddŭl 6 0.116 Tuk sŭm i Lord Voldemor
Hebrew Tom Vandrolo Ridl 6 0.161 Ani Lord Voldmort
Catalan Tod Morvosc Rodlel 7 0.291 Sóc Lord Voldemort
Serbian Tom Mervolodomos Ridl 8 0.158 To smo mi Lord Voldemor
Romanian Tom Ruvel Doodler 9 0.184 Eu Lord Voldemort
Belarusian Tom Val’Dor Redl 9 0.199 Lord Val’Demort
Lithuanian† Tomas Malvoras Ridlis 9 0.206 Aš Valdovas Voldemortas
Swedish Tom Gus Mervolo Dolder 10 0.232 Ego sum Lord Voldemort
Norwegian Tom Dredolo Venster 10 0.249 Voldemort den Store
Hungarian Tom Rowle Denem 10 0.259 Nevem Voldemort
Faroese Tom Evildo Reger 10 0.270 Eg eri Voldemort
French Tom Elvis Jedusor 12 0.306 Je suis Voldemort
Finnish Tom Lomen Valedro 13 0.206 Ma olen Voldemort
Esperanto Tom Vlades Mistero 13 0.267 Mi estas Voldemort
Icelandic‡ Trevor Delgome 14 0.307 Eg er Voldemort
Dutch Marten Asmodom Vilijn 15 0.361 Mijn naam is Voldemort
Slovenian§ Mark Neelstin 15 0.485 Mrlakenstein
Danish Romeo G Detlev Jr 16 0.414 Jeg er Voldemort

* Good try, Basque, but there are too many Is in NARIVOLOZ

† Some sources have LORDAS instead of VALDOVAS. This isn’t an anagram either way (count the Ms, or Is).

‡ If you know what Neville’s toad was named in Iceland, let me know.

§ Well the anagram is as elegant as any, Slovenia, but changing “Voldemort” and “Tom Riddle” is somewhat cheating.


Ok, so, why is is that the Romance and Slavic language versions generally just run with an embellished middle name, but the Scandinavian language versions are so tortured? “Riddle” is a Germanic word, so it seems weird that none of them opted to keep it, or a cognate.

My guess is the J-G of the first person pronoun is just really hard to work into a proper name (especially, perhaps, with a V already called for). The Swedish translator cleverly opted to put the reveal into Latin, the Norwegian phrase breaks the form completely, the Danish translator managed to get “Jeg er” in there, but at the cost of making Voldemort’s birth name “Romeo G[åde] Detlev, Jr”.

He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named indeed.

Biogeography, and Big Year species discovery curves

In 2015, Noah Stryker is birding a global Big Year: i.e. trying to spot as many bird species as possible in the year, without the usual geographical constraints that big year birders often adopt. His blog on the Audubon site makes excellent reading. Aside from the impressive list of bird species being racked up, the logistics involved are mind-boggling. Virtually every week has seen him fly into a new country or part-of-country, a new local birder/guide to ferry him around birding sites, with stunningly little wasted time. For example, having run out of gettable birds in Colombia (no mean feat!), rather than risk a day or two idle, he scrambled a trip to Jamaica (“An old friend of mine, Liz Ames, happens to be finishing a three-month field research season in Jamaica… we’re hoping to make a clean sweep of Jamaica’s endemic birds in the next 48 hours”), a few weeks later, a delayed flight reduced his time in Iceland to an 7-hour overnight layover, but Iceland in summer doesn’t really get dark, so he pulled an all-nighter, and racked up 36 more species.

The fact that he’s birding so consistently and efficiently means the discovery curve is really smooth. Which means we can do things like try to predict his end-of-year total.

Noah Strycker's Species Accumulation Curve 2015

Noah Strycker’s 2015 Species Accumulation Curve, Jan-July

Michael Preston has a series of posts addressing exactly that. In the most recent, at the end of June, he finds that Noah’s accumulation curve is still mostly linear, but chooses to use a fourth order polynomial to fit to the previous global big year attempters, Alan Davies (not that one) and Ruth Miller.

But when the accumulation is done with consistency, the curve will follow the standard discovery curve pattern. Counts of individuals-per-species within a given area follow a power law curve, so the discovery curve is the inverse – usually modelled as a logarithmic or asymptotic curve tailing off to a theoretical maximum. Which is to say, the first day you go out, you’ll see lots of species, and then it becomes more and more a hunt for rarities (and, obviously, this is why Noah’s moving around so much. In order to keep a high number of species per day, he has to move on when the ROI in his current location falls below the expected ROI for the rest of the world in the available time left).

So I think it will be a struggle to maintain a linear accumulation. I predict the gradient will continue to level, and by the end of the year, a logarithmic trend line will fit better than a linear one.

Being a global exercise, it’s not obviously true that that will happen. After all, if the ROI drops, Noah can always move on. One could argue that a negligible number species are so widespread that collecting them early will undermine later collection efforts. But early-counting global species isn’t necessary, only early-counting species that occur in more than one region. The great flyways of the world lead to overlapping bird lists all across the Americas, within Eurasiafrica, and round the Asian Pacific Rim. Species collected in South America will have reduced Noah’s North American collections, and by the time he gets to Australasia in December, his efforts across the rest of the world will have diminished the ‘gettable’ list for Australia and New Zealand, perhaps leaving him only the endemic species. Though granted, there are quite a few in that part of the world.

The other interesting thing about Noah’s accumulation curve is that it already shows some degree of curvature in interesting places. Let’s do some biogeography.

World Ecozones

Ecozones of the world, by Wikipedian ArnoLagrange

Ecozones, as Wikipedia puts it, delineate large areas of the Earth’s surface within which organisms have been evolving in relative isolation over long periods of time. They take fancy Latinate names, but are more or less what you’d expect: South/Central America (Neotropic), Nearctic (North America), Palearctic (Eurasia and North Africa), Afrotropic (Sub-Saharan Africa), Indomalaya (South-East Asia), Australasia, Oceania, Antarctic. Within each zone, there is a shared biogeography, which translates to a lot of species overlap. Not anywhere near total species overlap, of course, but enough that the common and farther-flying species are common across much of the zone. Enough that, on the Big Year scale, it starts affecting the accumulation curve.

Here’s a graph of species seen by Noah per day (so far), coloured by ecozone.

Species counted per day

Graph of species counted by Noah Strycker per day, in Big Year 2015, Jan-Jul, coloured by ecozone.

A trend emerges:
Aside from Antarctica (travel is a bit constrained when you’re on a cruise ship), there’s clear downward trend to the ‘peak’ days (peak days correspond to Noah’s arrival at a new birding site), and a less clear but still noticeable downward trend (R2~=0.2) within each zone as a whole. The spike at the beginning of each new ecozone resets the trend to some extent, i.e. we see a logarithmic pattern within each ecozone. I’m not sure whether the lower initial spikes in North America and Europe are due to early counting of overlapping species or simply that temperate ecosystems are less rich in species to begin with. In particular, the inter-migration between North and South America seems to be producing a macro-ecozone effect.

So what happens if we model the entire year as a series of ecozones, with each one following a simple exponential drop-off:

Species Accumulation by ecozone Model

Model of species accumulation as exponential fall-off from ecozone peak.
Light green = modelled species seen per day
Grey = modelled species accumulation curve based on the per-day figures
Blue = actual species accumulation curve
Green dots = actual curve linear trend line projected to EOY.

The modelled species per day value is floor[$ecozone_peak * log2($days_in_zone + 1)/$days_in_zone]. The ecozone peak values for Antarctica (12), South America (108), North America (49), Europe (57) and Africa (75) are taken from Noah’s list, being the most successful day spent in each ecozone (all in the first week of their respective zone, counting North America as Guatemala 2015-04-20 onwards). The peak figures for Asia and Australasia are purely guesses, which makes this model not especially powerful as a prediction tool.

So that’s not bad, it tracks the curve quite well in North America (May-June), Europe (Jun), and Africa (Jul), albeit a little lower than reality.

But the smooth fall off doesn’t look anything like Noah’s sighting pattern. As I’ve mentioned, Noah is moving around a lot. And each individual locale he flies into also comes with its own species accumulation curve. Although he takes heroic pains to traverse ecosystems and altitudes to capture as diverse a set as possible, there is inevitable overlap at each new centre he visits, and possibly he is choosing which ecosystems to visit in descending order of richness too. After all, you might find there’s a trip to Jamaica to be squeezed in! So there’s another level to this – within each ecozone are a number of sites, and each site has its own peak-and-falloff, and each peak is lower than the last.

What happens if we model each ecozone as a series of locales, taking a representative nine days at each, and put a drop-off on the accumulations.

Species Accumulation Model by ecozone and Locale

Model of species accumulation as exponential fall-off from ecozone peak and individual locale peaks.
Light green = modelled species seen per day
Grey = modelled species accumulation curve based on the per-day figures
Blue = actual species accumulation curve
Green dots = actual curve linear trend line projected to EOY.

The modelled species per day value is now floor[$ecozone_peak * log2($days_in_zone + 1)^1.6/$days_in_zone * 0.8^(($days_in_locale - 1) mod 9)], so introducing a geometric drop off (and unjustifiably futzing with the ecozone term to compensate).

The alignment is now surprisingly successful, even given how many arbitrary constants there are in that function! The proof of the pudding will come when Noah enters Asia and then Australasia, and I can plug in the final two ecozone peak figures and see how well the model tracks.

Interestingly, even with all the curve matching, the current prediction for the end of year figure, using what I hope are reasonable predictions for the peaks in the remaining tropical ecozones Asia (70) and Australasia (80), comes out to almost exactly the same as the linear trend line shows: about 6,500. But then, so far I have only accounted for the two observable inverse-power-law patterns, and not the hypothetical global one. If that is a factor, then 70 and 80 are probably over-estimates, and we’re probably looking at an end of year figure nearer 6,100.

There is a further line of reasoning to support that, which is: Noah, or someone at Audubon has almost certainly done this exercise already, and they chose to aim for 5000 species, not 6000. That suggests to me that 6000 was not considered a foregone conclusion, and so perhaps they are expecting it to be low 6,000s rather than up in the 6,500s. Who knows.

It occurs to me though, that Noah may have one more trick up his sleeve, at the end of the year. He’s travelling, Phineas Fogg style, eastwards around the globe. Were it me, come the end of December, with New Zealand finally birded out, I would be awfully tempted to cash in the hours banked crossing time zones: catch a Dec 30th flight to Hawaii, and win a bonus day to chase down 48 Hawaiian endemics and the last few Pacific pelagics. Which would quite nicely tick off the eighth ecozone, and thus the world.

The Swan and her crew (1876)

One of the books often cited as a source for Arthur Ransome’s Norfolk-based stories (Coot Club and The Big Six), is the 1876 work by G. Christopher Davies, “The Swan And Her Crew, or the adventures of three young naturalists and sportsmen on the broads and rivers of Norfolk“. The subtitle should have been a give-away, but I was unprepared for the extent of the slaughter enacted by the crew of the Swan on the local wildlife. In the first chapter alone, a pair of crossbills are shot out of a rare-to-Norfolk flock, caterpillars are harvested by the handful to be raised for pinning, and the Swan undertakes her maiden voyage, during which a grebe’s nest is entirely mown down, and a coot’s nest is cast adrift (a sequence inverted in the first chapter of Coot Club).

Soon afterwards, the three young protagonists receive, from their tutor (a vicar), the following lecture on how to be good naturalists, and I dared wonder whether they might behave more carefully for the rest of the book.

Now it won’t take you long to decide that Natural History is a very right and proper thing for you to take up, and therefore you may study it with all your might, and, I doubt not, to the praise and glory of God ; but be very careful about the collecting part of the business. Don’t let your zeal carry you too far. Don’t let collecting be your sole aim and object, or you will become very low types of naturalists. Let it be only secondary and subservient to observation. Let your aim be to preserve rather than to destroy. Remember that God gave life to His creatures that they might enjoy it, as well as fulfil their missions and propagate their species. Therefore if you come across a rare bird, do not kill it unnecessarily ; if you can observe its living motions it will interest you more and do you more good than will the possession of its stuffed body when dead.

Nope. The book goes on to describe a year spent pursuing their interests, in which it becomes clear that “sportsman” and “naturalist” are more alike than a modern reader would expect, and that “naturalist” does not in the slightest mean “conservationist”.

Dozens, maybe hundreds, of eggs are taken from the nests of over twenty different species of birds, although in a few cases the nest is already abandoned through no fault of the protagonists (e.g. someone else shot the parent bird), and the boys rarely take more than half the eggs of each clutch. However, these meliorations are entirely offset by the author’s other disclaimer: “It must not be supposed that I mention all the nests and eggs the boys found in their rambles. Space forbids me to notice more than those which are rare or unusual. For the nest of one rare or uncommon bird they found a dozen of the commoner sorts, for they were very quick observers.”

That habit makes the recorded egg collection look like a parade of rare species: bearded tits, siskins, hen harriers, water rail, wryneck, golden orioles, corn-crakes, bitterns. The scarcity of these birds is often mentioned as a point of interest. Sometimes in the same sentence as the egg collection. On a couple of occasions, the fact that the birds are rare because of egg collectors is mentioned in the same paragraph as the egg collection.

On bitterns, for instance:

Early the next morning they renewed their search, and while they were crashing through the very middle of the reed bed, the bittern rose with a hoarse cry, and flew away with a dull, heavy flight. And there, as good luck would have it, was its nest, a large structure of sticks, reeds and rushes, and in it were four eggs, large, round, and pale brown in colour. It was not in human nature (or at least in boy nature) to resist taking all the eggs.

At one time [the bittern] was common enough in England, but the spread of cultivation, the drainage of the marshes, and the pursuit of the collector have rendered it rare ; … its nest is now but rarely found.

As well as eggs, the boys are keen on hunting, mostly wildfowl, but happy to take anything else that comes their way. On one occasion, a punt gun is demonstrated to devastating effect. (“The mighty gun flashed forth its deadly contents with a tremendous roar, and Frank found himself hurled back upon Jimmy… The birds which were unhurt swept away with a great clamour, but the mud was covered with dead and dying.”). The correct time for shooting ducks is revealed to be, not only in winter on mud-flats, but also in late summer on corn-fields, and in early summer when young ones have just learned to fly and aren’t very good at it yet (“for an hour or so they had good sport beating about the dykes, and flushing them one by one until they had disposed of the whole brood.”), and basically whenever else you like.

There is less empathy for fish killed in sport, but the sheer volumes documented in The Swan are staggering. Here is one of their better days:

Before six o’clock in the evening they had caught over three hundred fishes, big and little, the largest about five pounds in weight. The total weight was about twelve stone. Norfolk bream fishers will know that I am not exaggerating.
“I am thoroughly tired of this,” said Dick at length; “this is not sport, it is butchery, especially as we do not know what to do with them now we have caught them, except to give them to some farmer for manure.”

As with the “nesting”, Davies assures us that the documented days of fishing are only a small proportion of the boys’ activities.

So, obviously this book is going on 140 years old now, and I wasn’t expecting a conservationist agenda, but its entire tone is strikingly different from the Coot Club books of Arthur Ransome, despite the similarity in setting and focus. Ransome obviously drew inspiration from The Swan, but it is the fishing incidents that he gives to the Death and Glories to have (the eel-fishing, and the giant pike), not the murderous transects through the local bird-life. And now I wonder how much the invention of photography, as a non-fatal method of documenting sightings, had on practical ornithology. So all in all I’m rather glad that it is Ransome’s books that are still read, that egg-collecting is no longer common practice, and that wildfowling is managed in a conservation-aware way.

The X’s Daughter

Update: this post by Emily St. John Mandel didn’t exist when I posted the below, but is a much better analysis of the same subject, and you should read it.

There is an trend in contemporary publishing that seems to have exploded over the last ten years or so, of having novels titled “The X’s Daughter”, where X is a profession or similar descriptor. I hadn’t realised how popular the trend was, until browsing round Amazon for a few minutes found over thirty titles, twenty-six first published since 2000. My theory for the current explosion of titles is that it’s possibly in some part due to the success of “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” by Amy Tan. Here’s a list.

Not quite fitting the pattern, but worth mentioning for it’s profound lack of originality:

The snowclone is spreading into other relationships as well. The Time Traveller’s Wife (then later The Rector’s, the Footballer’s, the Traitor’s), The Gambler’s Nephew (c.f. the Magician’s), The Colonial Gentleman’s Son, etc. It’s almost tempting to find out if there’s some important structural reason why these stories are so evasive about the actual title character, in favour of their more interesting relative. But not tempting enough to make me read thirty novels from the “contemporary fiction” section.