In So Many Words

Info-Comics by Larry Paros


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Surprise quiz today, kids. There's only one question on it — where the word itself actually come from?

The best story as to its origins comes from Ireland. Where else? Supposedly, back in 1782, a theatre operator named Daly wagered an acquaintance that overnight he could successfully introduce a meaningless word into the language.

Mobilizing his employees he proceeded one evening to plaster the letters Q-U-I-Z all over Dublin. The next morning, the word was on the lips of all the citizenry, inquiring as to its meaning.

It's a neat tale, but it doesn't explain how in that same year we had a quiz recorded as an "odd or eccentric person."

A more realistic possibility is the Latin quis, "what." Better yet, qui es, "who are you?" — the first question that used to be asked of grammar school students on their Latin oral exam.

The quiz show has long been an integral part of American life. The first of a long line, "Double or Nothing," premiered on radio in 1940 with a top prize of $64. By 1955 it had mutated onto TV as the "$64,000 Question" in 1955, later, doubling again to new heights of $128,000 in 1976. A major cheating scandal in-between (1958), however, brought its popularity into question, leaving us, rather than the contestants looking for answers.

But things didn't stop there. "Who wants to be a millionaire?" premiered in 1999, but was then topped by "Who wants to be a super millionaire?" in 2004.

The biggest prizewinner in the history of quiz shows has been Brad Rutter who amassed a total of $4,555,102, primarily playing Jeopardy, just edging out Ken Jennings, the previous champ, over a series of contests.

Jeopardy derives from the Old French ieu parti '(evenly) divided game,' originally a term used in chess and other games to denote a problem, or a position in which the chances of winning or losing were evenly balanced, hence "a dangerous situation."

"Jeopardy," the TV show, originated in 1964 but attained its popularity under Alex Trebek beginning in 1984. It became so popular that it went on to become a cornerstone of American foreign policy. The stakes of the game (we are told) are now our nation's security and our most treasured freedoms. The game itself is conducted in secret. Quizmasters occupy the highest posts of government though they are for the most part anonymous. The audience is the largest in history, our entire citizenry, who cheer not for the contestants but for the quizmasters.

The most challenging part of the game is called enhanced interrogation, a phrase first used by the Bush administration, though its origins can actually be traced back to Germany and the phrase in "verschärfte vernehmung," which translates loosely as "enhanced," "intensified," or "sharpened" interrogation. It was used at the time to describe a form of torture that would leave no marks, and spare the embarrassment of pre-war Nazi officials from possible charges of torture.

Torture itself derives from the late Latin tortura 'twisting, torment,' from the Latin torquere 'to twist,' aptly describing the logic of the policy, and how skeptics of it came by the quizzical look on their face. Like jeopardy, the game, things are inverted, and answers are always given in the form of a question.