The world’s most difficult quiz. Really.

It started as a test for boys at boarding school, and became a cultural phenomenon

The world’s most difficult quiz. Really.

Vincent J. Ricardel/Getty Images

For those who like the challenge of questions such as, “What is a megalaima haemacephala?”, The World’s Most Difficult Quiz, containing 30 years’ worth of tests, is now available in book form for the first time in its 100-year history.

The notoriously difficult quiz began life in 1905 at King Williams College, a private boys’ boarding school on the Isle of Man. Initially, the test was mandatory; teachers thought up questions and schoolboys as young as 12 struggled for hours to produce the correct answers. Eventually, the test became voluntary and the task of setting questions fell to an appointed quizmaster.

The current quizmaster is Dr. Pat Cullen, a retired GP and former student at King Williams College. He entered the college in 1947, and says in a phone interview, “I was probably perceived as tolerably intelligent.” Nevertheless, the test was “jolly difficult” in his estimation. “You sat for three hours with this wretched paper in front of you, and you tried to work out what on Earth he was getting at. A lot of us would say, ‘Right, Mr. Thompson, who sets the paper, is particularly fond of Queen Elizabeth I, Alice in Wonderland and the Dutch town of Delft.’ If it looked remotely suitable, you’d [answer] Queen Elizabeth I or the Mad Hatter. The clever lads would get 25 questions right out of 180.”

In Cullen’s era, after taking the test once, boys were sent home with the questions to research over the Christmas break. He remembers, “I would spend a lot of every Christmas holiday in the public library.” Cullen’s father helped out as well, making copies to send to friends. “He used to send it to my godfather, who was a very erudite chap who’d been to Oxford, and to a chap who was a commissioner at Scotland Yard who was very good at coughing up answers.”

When the boys returned in the New Year, they re-sat the exam. “The first night back, it was a big exchange and swapping of answers,” recalls Cullen. “People who hadn’t done any work would be sidling around behind the enthusiasts, trying to look over their shoulders. We had no Internet in those days. It was all down to reference books.”

Harry Galbraith, another former pupil, came from a poor family and did not excel academically but always performed well on the quiz. This seemed to confound the other top students. Two boys in particular, recalls Galbraith, “couldn’t understand why someone who to them appeared to be obsessed with sporting matters could possibly, repeatedly, win this very difficult quiz.”

Galbraith puts it down to his “very strong-rooted competitive instinct. I didn’t feel anything competitive about doing well in academic subjects but this was a straight competition. I think that’s what made the difference.” Like Cullen, he spent his Christmas holidays at the library, studying. “The pleasure was in detecting what the theme of a particular set of questions was,” he says. “Once you detected a theme, you could often answer six or seven questions in that group of 10.”

For instance, “What is the yolk of an egg?” appeared on a quiz in the 1990s. The answer: vitelline. The next question was, “What is a clove hitch across shrouds?” Answer: ratline. The next question: “What results when nuts are cracked in brown sugar?” Answer: praline. The pattern emerging is that all the answers end in “line.” This helps when guessing the answer to the next question, “What lady was imprisoned 13 times under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’?” Answer: Emmeline.

Today, the Guardian newspaper in England publishes the King Williams College quiz in late December. Very quickly thereafter, groups of interested people gather online to pool their answers. “You key into one of these websites and you see the answers coming in,” Cullen says. “Someone will say, ‘Well, we know the quizmaster has a Danish wife, so it might have something to do with Denmark.’ ” Cullen is amused by this, and by comments like, “There’s a few questions on birds because he’s keen on birdwatching.” But, he says, “Sometimes it’s lovely if they really are barking up the wrong tree.”

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