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Can You Answer This?

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'Can You Answer This?  by George A. Birmingham

Chris Jones was fortunate enough to pick up a copy of this book in a second-hand shop in Aylesbury.  It was first published in May 1927 by Ernest Benn Limited of Bouverie House, Fleet Street, (the copy I have from the Ninth impression made in February 1931).

This might just be the first ‘quiz book’ ever published in this country. It reveals, in the sort of questions it asks the reader (there are some 2,000 in all), what people ‘knew’, or might have been expected to know, in the decades immediately preceding WWII.

The introduction to Mr Birmingham’s book is all the more illuminating in that he furnishes the reader with some indication as to how folk from different age-groups and backgrounds fared with the questions, highlighting where some did well and others much less so.



"Here is a new pastime.

It is most amusing, and, once begun, irresistible.  I know this to be true, for I have tried it on several people.  Two Public School boys - and heaven knows they ought to be tired of being questioned - clamoured for more, and became in their insistence very daughters of the horse leach (... see "Sitter" Six, Q. 9.).  At a luncheon-party where I introduced the game a number of intelligent people became incapable of rational conversation, and for several hours would do nothing but test each other’s general knowledge.  One day after tea I was forced to be late for an important engagement by the eagerness of my friends for fresh questions.  And it was a very important engagement,  I had promised to address a Women’s Institute on Hungarian cookery.  (…)  The Americans, who appear to have invented this game, demanded eight fresh editions of a book like this one in the course of the month of February, a month in which there are only twenty-eight days.  What a lot of good things come from America originally (crossword puzzles, Ford cars, and President Wilson), and how little grateful we are !


It is instructive.

That seems at first sight a drawback to any pastime.  But it is not really so.  Men - especially Englishmen and Americans - have been so made by God that hey cannot enjoy a game in any comfort until they have persuaded themselves that it is doing them good in some way.  Unless someone had accused the Duke of Wellington of saying that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton (…), we should not be happy about the time we spend on cricket and football.  With that falsehood on our lips, backed by the name of the Iron Duke (…), we know that we are saving the Empire when we watch a Cup Final.  Most bridge-players believe, or profess to believe, that the game develops intelligence.  Those who do crossword puzzles soothe the consciences over the loss of hours of time every day by saying they are learning to spell, or finding out what ergs are, and emus.  When we put a modest half-crown on a Derby sweep (…) we know that we are encouraging racing, and thereby improving the breed of horses, which is a very virtuous thing to do.  But all these are, as we know very well, mere pretences, fig-leaves (…) with which we cover the nakedness of our self-indulgence.  But there is no pretence about the value of this new amusement.  The man who learns the answers to the two thousand questions in this book can win a scholarship, if he is young enough to go in for scholarships.  If he is too old for that, he will place himself on a lofty pedestal in society.


It is social.

Most mild pastimes are not.  Patience is a solitary game.  Chess problems make those who indulge in them morose,  Acrostics sour the tempers of the most amiable, so that their fellow shun their society.  Crosswords are the source of extreme irritation to those who occupy the same room as the solver.  What is more annoying than to be called upon for a word in four letters beginning with “g” and meaning female young just when you are deep in an article about the Budget?  But this new game is best played in company.  The pleasure of it is increased when it is shared.  Nothing is more delightful than to discover you are the only person in the room who knows what the Pentateuch is (…), or to find out that Rudolph Valentino (..), whom you have failed to identify, is, after all, a person whom no one with your superior kind of culture can be expected to know about.  It is well worth the sense of humiliation which comes of missing a question to be able to set up that defence of your ignorance afterwards.


It is an amusement in which the elderly have a distinct advantage over the young.

This is true of scarcely any other pastime.  In all outdoor sports, and almost all indoor games, “hungry generations tread us down” (Special Paper on Familiar Quotations, Q. 10).   But here we get the better of the young.  I have tried these papers of questions on various people of different ages, and by far the best score was made by a lady who is several times over a grandmother.  Her grandsons defeated her occasionally, though not often, over questions about broadcasting (…).  She had them every time over things which were important before they were born, like The Yellow Book (…).  The fact is that there is a blind spot in all of us.  We know the things that are written in history-books.  We know the things that came within our own memory.  But between the places at which the history books stop and memory begins there is a gap, and, since history-books are continually being brought up to date, that gap is far larger for the young than the old.

The compiling and arranging of these papers of questions was, though toilsome, almost as delightful as the use of them will be.  It was done by a syndicate of six, with the help of such casual labour from outside as could be procured.  The ages, professions, and interest of the six are very varied.  So are those of the casual helpers.  Some of us are over sixty.  Some of us are under twenty.  One is a business man.  One is an enthusiastic musician.  Three of the original six are graduates of a University.  One, and one casual, are undergraduates.  One is a horse-lover.  One sails boats.  All read books, but different books,  Three of the original syndicate are married.  The other three are not even engaged to be married.  One is interested in ornithology.  One is a chess player.  Another is good at astronomy.  Not one of all who have contributed to the book is a schoolmaster, schoolmistress, don, lecturer or otherwise professionally engaged in education of any kind.

Thus we have ensured - or hope we have ensured - that the questions cover a great part of the field of common knowledge.  We have made every effort to exclude questions which could only be answered by specialists.  The effort has been the source of prolonged debates, as eager as those of the Hampton Court Conferences (…). … Our aim was to ask only those questions as intelligent and educated people ought to know.  Everyone, I imagine, will agree that we have succeeded brilliantly.  We have not, perhaps, covered the whole field of “common knowledge.”  Another two thousand questions would be required for that.  But we have not strayed outside it.

If proof of this is required, here it is.

The book is divided into three sections.  First, “Sitters”, that is to say, questions as easy to answer as sitting birds are to shoot.  These we tried on sixteen boys attending primary school, all under the age of fourteen, and on twenty girls of the same kind and age. The boys secured 43 per cent, and the girls 37 per cent.  Any adult ought to make over 50 per cent.

Next come twenty-five (sets of) general questions, and the aim has been to make them increasingly difficult.  Two Public School boys and two undergraduates were tried with the earlier and supposedly easier of these papers.  They scored 56 per cent.  Two other Public School boys, both of them exceptionally clever, were tried with the later papers, and made 67 per cent.

The last section of the book contains papers on special subjects, though no specialist questions.  And here the scoring was very varied.  A highly intelligent girl made full marks on Fairy Tales and Legends, but crashed disastrously over quotations.  She complained that she knew nearly them nearly all, but could not fix the author of a single one.  I myself did very well in quotations, but scored a bare 30 per cent on Sport.

The discovery of blind patches in our knowledge is exceptionally interesting.  A boy who answered without hesitation the question about Ohm’s law (…) and Halley’s Comet (…) had never heard what God tempers the wind to (…), or what an ill bird does (…).  A little girl who answered all the “Sitters” about birds’ eggs, flowers, and trees, thought that cockles came to us from Russia.  A lady who knew everything we asked about Italian artists and their work did not know that Early English and Perpendicular are styles of Gothic architecture.  Scarcely anyone recognised the source of lines, surely tags, taken from Gray’s “Elegy”.

To find out our blind spots is a great advantage, if we are, as I hope everyone is, anxious to improve ourselves.  We know, after going through these questions, just where to begin.  I find, for instance, that I am shamefully ignorant of the names and reputations of movie stars.  From this on I intend to stop outside every picture house I pass, study the posters, and make a mental, if necessary a pencil, note of who is “featured.”  People who come to grief over acolytes and chasubles ought either to take to going to Anglo-Catholic Churches, or else to reading the Church Times.  And so on.  Having found out your weak spot, it is plainly a duty, and ought to be a pleasure, to strengthen it.  It is also a duty, and certainly a pleasure, to strengthen the weak spots of other people.

 George A. Birmingham  May, 1927.



SOLO - The game can be played alone, though this is not recommended.  For solitary play there are only three rules.

I.                   The player must not look at the answers beforehand.

II.               The player must not give himself a mark for anything which he “really knew quite well, but forgot for a moment,” and only remembered after looking at the answer.

III.            The player must not say afterwards that he scored 60 per cent . on any paper when he really scored 30 per cent. or less.


SOCIAL -- The game can be played by any number from two to eleven players.  There are nine rules for social play. 

I.                   One payer reads out the questions.  The others answer in turn.  The reader is forbidden to alter the wording of questions in such a way as to suggest the answer when it comes to the turn of the player whom he particularly likes --his wife, for instance.

II.                Partially answered questions must not be passed on.

III.            Only the questioner is allowed to look at the answers, and he is forbidden to boast that he knew the answer before he looked.

IV.            Logical definitions are not required-or supplied by the compilers-to questions beginning with “What is?”  Any answer which shows that the answerer knows what the thing really is is sufficient.

V.                Benevolent fathers, uncles, or maiden aunts should be encouraged to offer prizes for the best answerers.

VI.             Where no such person can be found, the players may contribute to form a pool, which is taken by the player with the highest percentage of answers.

VII.          Where this is regarded as gambling (and therefore wrong), the whole pool can be given to a deserving charity, named by the winning player.  (In cases where any difficulty arises, the compilers of the book will be pleased to name the charity.)

VIII.       The game can be played equally well without prizes or stakes.  The honour of scoring sixty per cent. on an advanced paper is sufficient reward for any reasonable man.

IX.            Any player who says that a question is unfair is to be fined two marks.  If he argues that an answer given in the book is wrong he is fined five marks, and not allowed to play again until he has apologised."

Some sample questions:



"Who is Buster Keaton ?

Moving picture comedian


What is postage on a letter to the USA ?

A penny-halfpenny


What is compline ?
The last of the daily hours of prayer in most monastic rules


What is the characteristic of the daughters of the horse leach in the opinion of Solomon ?
Insatiable greed (Prov. xxx. 15)


Who wrote the following and in what work; “No hungry generations tread thee down” ?

Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale"


Who painted "The Roll Call" ?

Lady Butler


Who are the Hohenzollerns ?

The late German Imperial dynasty


What is usquebaugh ?

Whiskey (Gaelic)


What is the pons asinorum ?

The fifth proposition in the First Book of Euclid


With the exception of the quote from Keats all the foregoing come from the section marked "Sitters"!


We earnestly hope we've not infringed copyright in reproducing these extracts.  We have no way of knowing whether, 73 years later, if Mr. Birmingham is still with us.  Or, if not, how long it is since he passed away.  If he was a young man in 1927 we was perhaps called up to fight in WWII, with all the attendant perils that engendered, but if, as one suspects, he was one of the compilers over the age of 60, it is likely to be some 50 or 60 years since his demise.  Anyway, if you know different please contact us and we will take immediate steps to bring ourselves within the law!




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Last modified: August 23, 2001