While writing my 2005 book Brainiac, I spent a very enjoyable year playing historical detective, combing through dusty books and fuzzy microfilmed broadsheets in a series of enormous libraries. I wanted to find the ur-quiz: the birth of the general-knowledge question-and-answer game that would become “trivia.” I had read that newspapers ran quiz columns during the 1920s crossword craze, but was never able to unearth an example in the hundreds of U.S. puzzle columns I looked at. In the end, I decided that quizzes weren’t born until the crossword puzzle fad cross-pollinated with the spread of intelligence testing, and that Ralph Albertson’s quiz in his 1925 Mental Agility Book was the closest thing to a “first trivia quiz.”
But I overlooked one other possible ancestor of trivia: the classroom quiz. This month, the University of Chicago Press introduces Americans to a new corner of quiz culture: the King William’s College “General Knowledge Papers,” given every year for over a century at a small but prestigious boarding school on the Isle of Man. Students take the quiz in strict exam conditions on the last day of every autumn term, and then spend their Christmas breaks researching answers and circulating the quiz among friends and family. Prizes are given for the top “open book” and “closed book” scores. The Guardian newspaper caught wind of the quiz in the 1950s and began printing it every Christmas, where its outlandishly difficult questions have found a large and loyal audience. The new Liverpool University Press volume (distributed here by the University of Chicago Press) contains thirty years of the “World’s Most Difficult Quiz” (yes, with answers) and adds a new “bespoke” quiz never before published. Only the British demand “bespoke” trivia questions to go with their custom-fitted spats and monocles.
American quiz fans will find the book endlessly fascinating, I’m sure, but be warned: this isn’t like any trivia you’ve ever seen before. The earliest “General Knowledge Papers” were a series of simple fact-response questions like “Who wrote Pickwick?” But a difficulty arms race over the decades has turned the quiz into something else entirely: not just questions that are obscure, but ones that are (especially for an American) completely impenetrable. Much as British crosswords ramp up the difficulty not by using obscure words but by cloaking the clues in a veil of intentionally cryptic humor and wordplay, so these quizzes are equal part factual question and riddle. They aren’t so much about recalling the facts as they are about just understanding the damn questions.
Take the title of this post, a question I borrowed at random from the 2004 quiz: “Wombling free, what destination is partly algebraic?” “Wombling free” is a reference to the British children’s TV classic The Wombles, about a band of strange litter-collecting creatures that burrow deep beneath London. Their theme song began “Underground, overground, wombling free,” which, combined with the word “destination,” is supposed to cue us that the question is looking for a tube station on the London Underground. The answer: Totteridge and Whetstone, in north London. Why is Totteridge and Whetstone “partially algebraic”? Because “Totteridge” has nothing to do with algebra, but The Whetstone of Witte is an important early algebra text published by Robert Recorde in 1557. See? Perfectly simple.
All the quiz questions are organized into ten-question series. This question came from a set of ten “wombling free” questions that each points cryptically to a different London tube station, usually by punning on their names. The stop that “suggests olive trees in Tuscany” is Arnos Grove, on the Piccadilly line. The stop that implies “inept play at whist” is Whitechapel, since “Whitechapel play” is archaic slang for lousy whist. The stop “originally worth 6/8″ is Angel, a reference to a 15th-century gold coin. But you probably knew that.
The unifying themes are often the only thing making the quizzes even possible: without them, the questions themselves don’t seem to point to anything at all. Take a 2009 question like “Who is better than best?” It’s unanswerable–unless you start trying to solve it in tandem with its nine companions. “What stepped out from BA?” “What is also a hummingbird?” “Who retained his virtuosity despite an accidental conversion to syndactyly?” If you know that syndactyly is the condition of having the fingers grow together, you may remember that one “virtuoso” so afflicted was jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who had two fingers fused together in a house fire when he was 18. (Who am I kidding? You almost certainly don’t know either of those facts. I didn’t. But it’s a fun afternoon of Googling, anyway.) Convinced that you are on the right track, you may now notice that “stepping out” from BA might be hinting at a dance from Buenos Aires–the tango maybe? Aha, tango/Django. And there’s a kind of hummingbird called the Jamaican mango. Other clues, you start to see, seem to point obliquely to Santo Domingo and Chicken Marengo. Then who or what is better than best? Why, “Ringo,” of course–better than (Pete) Best. The pleasure is more akin to cracking a code than it is to remembering an answer. To American trivia fans, accustomed to a cleaner-cut kind of recall, this may all seem frustrating and silly, or it may sound like a lot of fun. As for me, well–can’t it be both?
The King William’s College quiz was born, amazingly, in 1905, so my book on the origins of quizzing was dead wrong. Here’s a quiz tradition that began decades before general-knowledge quizzing became an American hobby. I wonder if there are other educational forebears to modern trivia that never lucked into a mass audience outside the ivy halls of academe, as this one did. If anyone knows of any, feel free to womble over and let me know. Until then, I’ll be puzzling over questions like “Whose is the point of a worm-like addition?” and “During the year 1900, whose return for 1st June was 31.1 – 14- 48 -17?” and “Where does the brewer recognise a recurved bill?” If I find out, I’ll let you know.