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.