I was a nerdy kid who loved accumulating facts. My Year 5 teacher, Mr Graham, a quiz champion on 'Pick A Box', was my idol. He knew everything about everything and I wanted to be just like him.
When I was ten or eleven, I persuaded my mother to take me to an audition for the ‘Quiz Kids’, a weekly TV show on the ABC, hosted by John Dease. It was school holidays and I recall going to a hall in Newtown, receiving a name tag and being directed to a seat in a row towards the back, while my mum joined the other parents on benches at the side of the room. Then Mr Dease appeared, a kindly and affable quizmaster with an upper-class English accent. He explained that he would ask each of us a different question in seating order and repeat the procedure over the course of several rounds. Forty bright-eyed children hung on his every word.
Like almost everyone else, I was able to give a correct answer in the first round. But the questions proved to be more difficult second time around, and all too quickly it was my turn again. In his mellifluous voice, Mr Dease asked me:
What is the origin of the word ‘nickname’?
I had absolutely no idea. While I racked my brain, the quizmaster smiled encouragingly. All at once, the answer struck me like a proverbial lightning bolt. With supreme confidence I responded:
‘A nickname is the name that replaces your real name when someone nicks it.’
There were giggles from the other children. Soon it had grown into waves of laughter. Even the parents were chuckling.
Mr Dease responded gently, ‘What an amusing answer, Deborah. We need children with a sense of humour.’
But it wasn’t meant to be funny, I thought to myself, aware that a hot blush was staining my face a bright shade of pink.
Mr Dease must have noticed my discomfort because he added, ‘That was a good attempt.' Then he proceeded to give the correct answer - a nickname is an additional name and comes from the Old English word 'eke', meaning 'addition', which was subsequently mispronounced as 'neke'. Hence 'nekename'.
The quizmaster’s kindness couldn’t soothe my embarrassment. I sank down in the chair and when my turn came to answer again, my mind went blank. It was an easy enough question: ‘What is a depot?’ (Mr Dease pronounced it ‘deeep-oh’) but I couldn’t think straight, and that was the pattern for the rest of the audition. At the end of the afternoon, a select group of students was chosen to join the team. Naturally, I wasn’t among them.
And so my career as a TV ‘Quiz Kid’ was over before it began. Actually, it was much like what happens to my fictional accountant Kevin Dwyer in 'The Trivia Man'* when he auditions for an ’80s program called ‘The World’s Biggest Quiz’. Except that Kevin is asked to name the oldest form of mammal and he gives the correct answer. But a very stern quizmaster called Frank Fortune, who has a completely different answer on his card, tells Kevin he's wrong.
That day I went home and sought out the 'Concise Oxford Dictionary' – yes, the one I’d purchased by saving several months’ worth of pocket money. My trusty dictionary confirmed everything that Mr Dease had said. I leafed to the back where there were blank pages for notes. Taking a pencil I wrote the origin of the word ‘nickname’ in my neatest writing. The annotation remains there to this day.
I’ve never told anyone this story before, not even my closest friends.
Over the years they've suggested I audition for various TV quiz shows, but I’ve always demurred. Now they know why!
* 'The Trivia Man' will be released 1 June 2015.
1 February, 2015