Chris Maume: ‘We quiz-setters never turn off. Once you’ve set one, your brain is re-wired’

Tales of the City

Having just compiled a 60-question end-of-year quiz for our Sunday sister, and a 20-questioner for the Indy sports desk Christmas lunch (the trick for that one is to get in there while they're still eating dessert and before drunken chaos descends), I should be all quizzed out. I have another one coming up next month – but fortunately quiz-setters never turn off. Once you've set one, your brain's rewired. You're like a pickup artist wandering through a crowd calculating the bedability of each half-decent female: each scrap of information that comes your way, however insignificant – insignificant is fine in fact – is assessed for its potential as a question.

The January gig is up in Highgate, where a few times a year with Simon O'Hagan, who sets the Independent Magazine quiz, I do the honours at what's been described as the hardest pub quiz in London. On a website called someone's posted some approving comments about Tuesday nights at the Prince of Wales, though they plaintively conclude, "The scoring of any points here is an enormous achievement."

It's a finely judged thing, setting questions. There are three principal sounds in pub quizzes when the setter is giving the answers: groans from the incorrect, satisfied murmurs from those who knew they were right, and roars from those who guessed right. But underlying them all should be little exhalations of interest, as if to say, "Well, I never knew that."

The original "quiz" was "an odd or eccentric person in character or appearance", according to the OED. His first recorded appearance was in 1782. "He's a droll quiz and I rather like him," Fanny Burney was heard to remark, an observation which could be handily updated: "He's a droll quiz- setter and I rather like him."

It then came to signify a practical joke or a hoax, possibly because that's the kind of thing droll quizzes like to do. It seems to have acquired its present usage in the United States, in college oral exams rather than saloons ("Tonight – Saloon Quiz! No blackberries, mobiles or firearms! First prize: a night upstairs with Diamond Lil and her uniquely gifted good-time gals!") There's a wholly unsubstantiated story that in 1791 James Daly, a Dublin theatre-owner, struck a bet that he could introduce a new word into the language in 24 hours, and paid street urchins, budding Banksies all, to paint "quiz" on the walls of the town. It would work today – before teatime there'd be websites devoted to it, Hello Kitty would buy the rights to the word and the perpetrators would soon be signed up to film deals. For a few weeks it would come to symbolise a profusion of contradictory stances, a word without meaning for a world without meaning.

A BBC documentary last week about Scrabble underlined how the meaning of the words on the board is irrelevant. They're not words, said one high-roller, they're "word strings". Quizzing isn't like that. Meaning matters.

The worst kind of answer is an uninteresting fact you either know or you don't. The first-time setter of a parent's night quiz at the local school a few years ago had clearly just gone through an encyclopaedia: one question, I recall, involved knowing the name of an obscure mollusc (that's as opposed to all those well-known molluscs, of course).

The perfect answer should be able to be worked towards, making connections, as you go along. In India they're quiz-bonkers. There's a Champions League for individual quizzers, which seems to take away half the fun of quizzing, that group-grope towards the correct answer. I suspect that some of the enjoyment we derive from quizzes, apart from the simple competitive pleasure of being right when others around you are wrong, is linked to our need for narrative: novels, and not just whodunnits, are a kind of quiz, with all the clues, all the mental trails laid down, coalescing into a satisfying whole.

There is another type of question that requires some knowledge, but it shouldn't be anything arcane: an example in the Sindy end-of-year quiz was "Name the 10 countries in the world with four-letter names". You will almost certainly have all those names in your head, somewhere; it's just a question of marshalling it and getting it out in list form. Scans performed on quizzers' brains would probably tell as much as we need ever know about how we process information. It might also tell us other things we'd rather not know about. But that's another matter entirely.

John Walsh is away