One frustration many of us experience during quizzes, whether on tv or at home, is the inability to quite get to the answer, even if you know you know it, something I have suffered from many times on a Friday afternoon. Well, it seems there is a word for this. “Lethologica” (pronounced LETH-og-LODG-ik-a), which is the inability to remember a word or put your finger on the right word. It is the reason that words like “whatchamacallit” and “thingymabob” exist. Helpful, but just try and remember the word “lethologica”, especially when the answer to the question just won’t come. It is amazing what is buried deep there in the recesses of memory.
Now can you guess what all this got me thinking about? Well, it got me thinking about about the word “Quiz” and where it came from. Does it mean what it always did? I had my suspicion that it probably doesn’t. I also wondered if there may be lessons in how we may live our lives spiritually alive from this popular human pastime. Can we ask the right questions about life? Can we live in the quiz of life?
First things first though. What is the answer to the question, where does the word “quiz” come from?
Well there is a story told, which is likely acrophyll, of a prominent Dublin theatre manager named Richard Daley in the late 18th century who placed a “wager” (now there’s another word of interesting origin) that he could make up a word of no meaning and that it would become common talk in the city within “twenty-four hours. Now in the course of a day the letters “Q.U.I.Z” were chalked or pasted on the walls of Dublin, and it is said that by the end of the day everyone was talking about it and thus he won the wager.
The story has been disputed, although there was a theatre manager named Richard Daley in the Dublin of the day, it is just suggested that the word was in use before his time. Whatever the word “Quiz’s” origin it has certainly changed in meaning over time. The word originally meant an eccentric person or object. Later it meant “to make fun of” or “one who mocks”. It appears in Charlotte Bronte's “The Professor” 1857 “He was not odd – no quiz – yet he resembled no one else I had ever seen before.” As well as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey “Where did you get that quiz of a hat? It makes you look like an old witch.” It soon became applied to a person who makes fun or mocks another, or a practical joke. As in Charles Dickens “Martin Chuzzlewit "For goodness sake, Mrs. Todgers," interposed the lively Merry, "don't call him a gentleman. My dear Cherry, Pinch a gentleman! The idea!" "What a wicked girl you are!" cried Mrs. Todgers, embracing her with great affection. "You're quite a quiz I do declare!" By the late nineteenth century it began to morph into our current understanding, referring to test or questions, obviously influenced by words such as “question” and “inquisitive”.
So that is where “quiz” comes from and yes it has certainly changed in meaning over time. Can we learn lessons from this on how we may live our lives spiritually alive from this popular human pastime? Can we ask the right questions about life? Can we live in the quiz of life?
The idea of quizzing or being quizzed is I believe vital to living spiritually alive, to living a life of virtue. To do so requires us to ask questions of life and ourselves, to become inquisitive, to make a quiz out of living, to become skeptics in the truest sense of the word. A sceptic is someone who inquires, who questions, who doubts a truth given unless they explore it themselves. Note the title of the Unitarian publication, that I contribute a monthly column to “The Inquirer”. It seems to me that to Inquire is to quiz, to be a skeptic about “truth”.
The first skeptics were found in ancient Greece. Socrates is the father of Scepticism. For him it was impossible for humans to truly know the absolute truth about anything, that the human mind isn’t designed to do so. As he said “I am the most ignorant man in Athens”. He knew more than anyone else it seems and he truly knew how little knowledge about life he truly had. It is this humility that leads to openness and was also a guard against the hubris of some of the great and the good of the day. Humility with respect to the search for knowledge is the key to skepticism, I wonder if this is still the case today.
Now over time sceptical thinking developed from the idea that it was impossible to truly know anything, to being humbled by how many competing wonderful ideas about life existed and the conclusion that as wonderful as they are, they can’t all be right, thus developing into a study of probabilities. Therefore to doubt and question is not to be against an idea it is about asking the ultimate questions of existence. This to me is the essence of living spiritually alive of religious living. A true skeptic is not against things, they are open to the possibility of things. Rene Descartes, considered the father of modern enlightenment thinking, is a wonderful example of this. He decided that in order to arrive at absolute truth, he must discard any belief that could be doubted. He did so until he arrived at a single remaining certainty within himself, the fact that he existed. He could no longer doubt this doubt and from there he was able to build something.
Sadly, I think that doubt and scepticism has at times got stuck in Descartes starting point. We live in a time where we have eroded all truth and truth claims, in this post-postmodern era. Meanwhile paradoxically there is a growth in belief in all kinds of conspiracy theories for which there is little or no true evidence, thus it seems that true skepticism is being eroded. How often do we hear the line “I’ve done my own research” which often usually means the rejection of most knowledge and the acceptance of something seen on YouTube or some of the dark places on the internet. There has been a rejection of Socrates and Descartes humility and an acceptance of some unverifiable source without really question. It blows my mind that so many people throughout this world have accepted with question the cult of Q-Anon and similar “conspiracy theories”, despite the fact that their predictions never come true. Sadly, the followers have reached the point where to question this truth would destroy everything that they stand for. This is not scepticism, it is the antipathy of it. This is not asking questions of life. This is not being life’s quiz master or mistress.
In the modern age we have things like “Alternative Facts” from former President Donald Trump’s special advisor Kellyanne Conway, which is essentially another way of saying a lie, but making it more palatable. It is interesting that since Trump’s ban from social media, following the horror witnessed in Washington on January 6th that there is now 75% less disinformation being spread on these platforms. Hopefully, this will lead to folk discerning the truth from the dangerous disinformation. It will not be easy though, as skepticism seems so far removed from much of the world today. We need to learn how to become skeptics again. Former President Trump has proved to be one of the biggest spreaders of disinformation our there. According to the Washington Post's "Fact Checker he made a total of 30,573 false or misleading statements during the four years of his presidency. By the way this was a question asked in this weeks quiz. No one got near the total, everyone underestimate the amount by wide margins.
The key to true scepticism is humility with regards to the search for truth, it is the ability to see you are wrong, to actually doubt your doubts. This is what Rousseau did. He could not deny his own existence, “I think therefore I am”. Like Socrates the key is humility which leads to an openness to truth. Sadly it seems that some folk can never admit to being wrong about anything, due to the fear that it might lead to them to seeing that what they believe is untrue. The truth is though, to echo good old Socrates, none of us ever gains access to the whole truth.
Humility, is always the key in the search for truth. This is wonderfully illustrated in the following piece of wisdom from Anthony DeMello’s “One Minute Wisdom”
"To a visitor who described himself as a seeker after Truth, the teacher said: “If what you seek is Truth, there is one thing you must have above all else.” “I know,” answered the student, “an overwhelming passion for it.” “No,” said the teacher, “an unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong.”
To seek the truth one needs humility and openness and enough self-esteem to see that we are wrong sometimes and of course the capacity to admit to this. If we cannot, we will not be able to see the truth, even when it is right in front of us. It is so easy to become blinded by what we think we know. We need the openness that comes with true humility, it’s a truth that will set us free.
In John’s Gospel Jesus said “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Words that are echoed in DeMello’s wisdom shared above. I have discovered that this can only be the case if we are truly quizzical about the truth we think we know, and the truth that is offered to us. Not by accepting the truth we are given but by seeking truth, by asking open questions by being quizzical, by becoming true quiz masters and asking open and humble questions about life. If you want to be a seeker of truth then above everything else what you need is an unremitting readiness to admit that you may be wrong. The truth is of course. Once you can see you are wrong about something, admit you are wrong about something, do whatever you can to put right what was once wrong, then you are no longer wrong, you are right.
The key, as Socrates taught, is humility and acceptance that you will never see the whole truth about everything, a humitly that will open us up to deeper and greater truths about, life, ourselves and our world.
It is said that when Isidor Rabi, the 1944 Nobel Prize winner in physics, was interviewed about his achievements, he said he owed it all to his mother. "When we got out of school, all the mothers would ask their children what they had learned that day. My mother would inquire instead, 'What did you ask today in class?'"
So let us all become life’s quiz masters. Let us be humble and open enough to not merely answer the questions that others ask of us, but to learn to ask life’s most important questions. What did you ask today?