origin of ‘quiz’ (“Vir bonus est quis?”)?

Edited on 21st May 2023, with the addition of the extract from Advice to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and to the Clergy of every Denomination (London: Printed for G. Kearsley, 1783), as quoted in The London Magazine: Or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer (London, England) of November 1783.


Abstract: Originally meaning ‘person of ridiculous appearance’, ‘quiz’ (students’ slang, late 18th century) was probably jocularly derived from the Latin interrogative pronoun ‘quis’ in “Vir bonus est quis?” (“Who is a good man?”)—a good, ingenuous, harmless man being likely to become an object of ridicule or even of harassment.






– as a verb: to ask questions of
– as a noun: any set of quick questions designed to test knowledge




The original sense of the noun quiz is a person whose appearance is peculiar or ridiculous. It is first recorded in An incredible Bore. A familiar Epistle from Roger Wittol, Esq. of —— College, Oxford, to Mr. John Hedgings in the Country (1780), purported to be written from Oxford:

T’other morning I threw off my chains with my gown,
Took a place in the Dilly [= diligence] and dangled to town;
When I found myself plac’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:
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.

From this sense, quiz came to be used as a verb meaning to make fun of. This is first recorded in Letter from Vir Bonus, containing a description of his figure, dress, and equipage,—and his unlucky adventures, as a Quiz, addressed to ‘Gregory Griffin’, the supposed editor of The Microcosm, A Periodical Work, by Gregory Griffin, of the College of Eton, and published in that magazine on 4th June 1787.

(‘Gregory Griffin’ was in fact the pseudonym adopted by three Eton boys, George Canning, John Hookham Frere and Robert Percy Smith, and the letter was written for the edification of their junior schoolfellows.)

The purported author of Letter from Vir Bonus describes himself as a hunchbacked man who is “now forty-nine years of age, and measure[s] four feet eight inches in height”; “at the age of twenty-four, a scrophulous humour disfigured a face not naturally resembling that of Adonis”; his “nose soon after began to increase to an enormous size, and is now perfectly unnatural”. The author writes:

(2nd edition – Windsor, 1788)
Riding through Eton about a week ago, with my nose before me,
          Nescio quid meditans, nugarum, et totus in illis.
Meditating, indeed, on I know not what, I was awakened from my reverie by several provincial words, the meaning of which were to me at that time, almost unintelligible; although by the gestures which accompanied them, it was no difficult matter to discover that they were not intended by way of compliment, “There’s a quiz! there’s a good one! my God! what a Gig! what a tough one! Smoke his nose.”
Notwithstanding I perceived that these expressions proceeded from several young Etonians, not one of whom had arrived at the age of thirteen [..].
Many pieces of mud and some stones were thrown, notwithstanding I advanced safe under cover of my nose, still quizzed and still pelted, till my quadrupede arrived opposite the schoolgate. I looked round for a master in vain: No black gown was to be seen.
A sight of one of your periodical papers, induced me to address a letter to you, hoping, partly upon a public, and partly upon a private motive, that it may be perused within the walls of the college […]: not that I would be thought one of those starch unconscionable gentlemen who expect to see youth blessed with all the benefit of experience; well knowing that it would be as impossible to prescribe limits to the winds, as to forbid a second form boy now and then to smoke a quiz.
Eton has long been the distinguished seat of politeness as well as learning. One lash from you may perhaps have more effect in softening these last remains of barbarism in your republic, than all the birch within ten miles of the precincts of the college.

The verb in turn gave rise to the sense a person who ridicules or hoaxes another of the noun quiz. I have found an early instance of this in The Leeds Intelligencer (Leeds, Yorkshire) of 10th October 1786:

Three heroes Equestrian last Sunday must go,
And snuff the fresh Dust up and down Rotten-row;
The first to the Bridge had scarce canter’d his Hack,
But down came the Hobby, and Bob from his Back.
Buceph’lus in th’ instant resolv’d what to do,
His Master was off—so he e’en was off too;
Some Quizzes just then flock’d around him, and say,
Pray tell Sir,— with you did the Horse run away?
Bob, vex’d with the question—to each fool about me—
Me he ran not away with, ’tis plain, but without me.

The noun quiz came to be also used in the sense of a piece of mockery, for example in Soliloquy on the Poll Tax, published in The Times (London) of 14th August 1795:

To pay, or not to pay? That is the question.—
Whether ’tis better in the mind to suffer
The laughs and quizzes of the powder’d pates;
Or to take arms against so many troubles,
And by a guinea end them?

Probably under the influence of the adjective inquisitive and related words, to quiz came to mean to regard with amusement or scorn, to peer intently at, to examine closely. This is first recorded in the Prologue to The Mysteries of the Castle: A Dramatic Tale, in Three Acts (Dublin, 1795), by the English playwright Miles Peter Andrews (1742-1814):

Long have been serv’d from this our motley stage,
Repasts for various tastes—from youth to age—
To lively Miss, escap’d from School and toil,
Our sports have oft bestow’d the infant smile,
While the rude boy, from Westminster or Eton,
Who “spies,” and “quizzes” one, where’er they meet one.

This gave rise to the sense to question, to interrogate, of the verb.




Several of its early occurrences indicate that the noun quiz originated in university and public-school slang:

– Its earliest known instance, already quoted, is from a book purported to be written from Oxford.

– The above-mentioned 1787 text was published in Eton’s periodical.

– In On the Present State of Conversation, published in Essays, Moral and Literary (London, 1782), the English essayist and headmaster Vicesimus Knox (1752-1821) wrote ironically of “the sublime contemplations, and the philosophical topics of discourse in the famed academic groves on the banks of the Cam and the Isis, and in the schools of science and theology”—“the Cam and the Isis” refer to the universities of Cambridge and Oxford:

(1784 edition)
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.

The Stamford Mercury (Stamford, Lincolnshire) of 19th June 1783 reported that

Wednesday came on to be tried at Westminster-Hall, before Lord Mansfield and a special jury, two actions, one brought by a Mr. Crowder, and the other by a Mr. Braithwaite, against several young Gentlemen at Harrow school, for a violent assault.—It appeared in evidence, that the two Plaintiffs had been at Harrow upon business, and that a number of the Scholars seeing that they were strangers, had gathered about them, calling them ludicrous names, such as bucks, bloods, and quizzes, which latter was explained by Mr. Bearcroft, as the cant word of the school for the year, being an abbreviation of the words quere phizzes1.

(1 In its account of that same trial, The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland) of 12th July 1783 wrote that “quizzes” was “an abbreviation of the words queer phizzes”.)

The Daily Universal Register (former name of The Times – London) of 7th August 1786 published a story titled The Toilette Looking Glass, in which young R——, a Cantab (i.e. a student at Cambridge), passes off “a young woman, not of the strictest chastity at Cambridge,” as his wife in order to avoid a marriage decided by his father, Sir Richard. The old gentleman accompanies the fictitious Mrs. R—— to a London theatre:

As ill fortune would have it, two young cantabs passed them, recollecting her, they turned round the gallery step, and accosted her, with, “What, Betty, ho!—how are you?” The fictitious Mrs. R—— was ready to faint, she made them no answer, but pushed forward to the door, one of the collegians caught her by the gown, and asked her, “How came you in such good plight?” and seeing Sir Richard, burst out in a laugh, and exclaimed, “Oh ho! what that old quiz keeps you!”

– Finally, the following is from The Heir at Law (1797), by the English playwright George Colman (1762-1836):

(1808 edition)
Dick Dowlas: What a damn’d gig2 you look like.
Doctor Pangloss: A gig!—Umph;—that’s an Eton phrase:—the Westminsters call it, quiz.

(2 gig — Eton slang: a synonym of quiz in its original sense)




The following two texts associate the noun quiz with the Latin phrase vir bonus est quis:

1-: The following is from Advice to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and to the Clergy of every Denomination (London: Printed for G. Kearsley, 1783), as quoted in The London Magazine: Or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer (London, England) of November 1783—acknowledgement: The Etymology of “Quiz” (21st February 2021), by Jess Zafarris:

“To the Quiz.

“A Quiz, in the 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.
“But, to confine myself within the precincts of the university, from whence I believe this amphibious creature originally sprung; I conceive him to be one of those dull, pedantic, spiritless animals, who jog on in the same beaten track, pulled along, as it were, by rules, and frightened, every step he advances, with a continual terror of sconces and impositions. Influenced in his conduct rather through a dread of punishment, than through a real desire of doing what is right.”

2-: The following is from the column Foreign Intelligence: London of The Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of 3rd May 1785:

A smart man is now called a pink, and a modest man in grave attire a quiz. The word quiz was of Cambridge origin, from the Latin adage, vir bonus est quis, &c. it grew in disuse for a considerable time, but is now revived by the celebrated military critic, and admitted into his catalogue of catch-words.

The Latin phrase vir bonus est quis appears in line 40 of Epistola XVI. Ad Quintium, in Epistolarum Liber I, by the Roman poet Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus – 65-8 BC):

Vir bonus est quis?
Qui consulta patrum, qui leges juraque servat.
     (translation from The Works of Horace, Translated Literally into English Prose, by Christopher Smart – London, 1770):
Who is a good man? He who observes the decrees of the senate, who observes the laws and rules of justice.

The noun quiz therefore was probably jocularly derived from the Latin interrogative pronoun quismeaning who, as used in this passage from Horace’s Epistola XVIThis is supported by the fact that the purported author of the above-mentioned text published in Eton’s periodical in 1787 is called “Vir Bonus”, i.e. good man, that he is “a Quiz”, and that the epigraph (i.e. the short quotation at the beginning of the text) is:

Vir bonus est quis?
The good man is a Quiz.

In his response to Vir Bonus’s letter, ‘Gregory Griffin’ confirms the relation between good man and quiz in the sense that a good, ingenuous, harmless man is likely to become an object of ridicule or even of harassment; about what he calls “the strange antipathies of our republic to the inoffensive race of Quizzes”, ‘Gregory Griffin’ writes:

It is impossible to account for the persecution of these beings, unless we suppose, that non-resistance only sharpens that rage which ugliness originally provoked. The Quiz, like the Eskimaux, generally seems contented with his humble lot; he eats, drinks, and sleeps, and has, no doubt, in some respects a reasonable soul, which is a privilege many naturalists have denied to the latter.
But, alas, I fear it is more than a Herculean labour to undertake the justification of a bottle nose; or rescue a suit of dittos from revilings! the populace will still be what it always was, and in spite of the admonitions of Gregory Griffin, a Jackass and a Quiz be persecuted with the same unrelenting severity.




A popular false etymology first appeared in The Manchester Times (Lancashire) of 24th January 1835 (the man in question is probably Richard Daly (1758-1813), Irish actor and, from 1780, theatre manager):

Origin of the Word Quiz.—Very few words ever took such a run, or was saddled with so many meanings, as this monosyllable; and, however strange the word, ’tis still more strange that not one of our lexicographers, from Bailey to Johnson, ever attempted an explanation, or gave a derivation of it. The reason is very obvious—it is because it has no meaning, nor is it derived from any language in the world, ever known from the Babylonish confusion to this day. When Richard Daly was patentee of the Irish theatres, he spent the evening of a Saturday in company with many of the wits and men of fashion of the day; gambling was introduced, when the manager staked a large sum that he would have spoken, all through the principal streets of Dublin, by a certain hour next day, Sunday, a word having no meaning, and being derived from no known language—wagers were laid, and stakes deposited. Daly repaired to the theatre, and despatched all the servants and supernumeraries with the word “Quiz,” which they chalked on every door and shop window in town. Shops being shut all next day, everybody coming to and going from their different places of worship saw the word, and everybody repeated it, so that “Quiz” was heard all through Dublin; the circumstance of so strange a word being on every door and window caused much surprise, and ever since, should a strange story be attempted to be passed current, it draws forth the expression—You are quizzing me.

This attempt to explain quiz fifty-five years after its first occurrence makes no sense, because the word did not originate in Ireland, but in southern England, and because it originally referred to a person of odd or ridiculous appearance, not to an act of questioning.


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