QI. Image shows from L to R: Alan Davies, Sandi Toksvig. Copyright: TalkbackThames.


BBC Two and BBC One panel show about quite interesting facts. 266 episodes (pilot + 18 series), 2003 - 2020. Stars Sandi Toksvig, Stephen Fry and Alan Davies.

Christmas special coming up.
Series K, Episode 13 is repeated on Dave tomorrow at 2am.

QI. Lou Sanders.

Series Q, Episode 13 - Quills

Further details


- Each of the panel is given a quill, except Alan who has a large novelty pencil with feathers stuck to it, and are asked why we don't use quills anymore. While quills were the writing instrument of choice for almost 1,500 years, the problem with them is that they require a lot of upkeep. You could only write three or four letters at a time, and then the ink would run out. Quills also needed sharpening regularly. The "pen" in "penknife" comes from "penna", the Latin for "feather", and penknives were used to sharpen quills. The quill has to come from a live bird, and the feather will grow back in about a year. In the 19th century, quills also experienced a great shortage due to the increase in literacy. There is also a hierarchy of quills, which is displayed among the panel. Jimmy has a goose quill, which was the everyday-quill; Tom had a crow quill, used by artistic people to draw thin lines; and Lou has a swan quill, the best of them. Elizabeth I used only swan quills. Thomas Jefferson however, kept his own geese to supply him with quills. Quills do have some advantages however, such as holding certain types of ink that would clog up a fountain pen, such as India ink.

- XL Tangent: Lou says that her mother is allergic to feathers. Jimmy replies that the term for this used to be: "illiterate". Lou then corrects herself and say that it was her father.

- XL Tangent: Jimmy asks that because you had to dip your quill into the ink every three letters, if is this the reason why Shakespeare was such a great writer, because he had to think carefully before writing anything down, whereas today people can just type stuff of any length. Sandi thinks that many books today are overlong. Charles Dickens once reportedly said: "I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time."

- Tangent: Alan once read a piece by Clive James about the noise that typewriters used to make. James wrote his first memoir on a typewriter, resulting in a terrific racket all day. When Sandi mimes typing, she still mimes sliding the roller back down, which is annoying when she is on an iPad. Jimmy would like a function on a keyboard where it tinged every time he pressed the return key, mainly to annoy people on the quiet carriage on trains. Alan then comments on people who haven't turned off the noise of the keypads on their smart phones on the quiet carriage. Lou just boldly goes up to such people, tells them that they can turn them off and that she can do it for them.

- Tangent: All the panel need quills from the left-wing, because they are all right handed and thus it avoids the quill hitting them in the face. Left-handed people thus need quills from the right-wing. If bald eagles lose feathers on one wing, they will shed the same feather on the other side. Alan then mimes flapping one arm while the other appears to be holding something, which is a mime of a seagull coming back from the library.

- Tangent: Tom asks why people didn't use sharpened sticks instead of quills, the reason being that quills have a little reservoir inside them to store ink. One of the forerunners of the fountain pen had a little steel holder that could be cut into five or six little nibs.

- Tangent: Goose feathers are still in use today, not only by the geese themselves, but by humans to stuff pillows and duvets, and to make shuttlecocks. The feathers in shuttlecocks have to come from the left-wing of a goose in order to make it spin clockwise. The name "Federer", as in Roger Federer, means, "one who trades in quills".

- XL: The panel are shown some obscure words beginning with "Q" and are asked what they mean.

- Quockerwodger: A person who pulls a puppet's strings. Later the term came to mean a politician who is having their strings pulled by someone else.

- Quicksticks: Right away. It is said by Mary Poppins. In the 1940s, the word was criminal slang for escaping from the police.

- XL Tangent: Sandi loves the original "Mary Poppins" film but has not seen the sequel, mainly because Julie Andrews is not in it. Alan has not seen the sequel either, which instead stars Emily Blunt as Poppins. Alan says that he quite fancies Blunt but it is wrong to fancy Poppins.

- Quakebuttock: A coward. Other similar words include, "poltroon", (coming from the Italian for a sluggard) and "dastard" (someone who acts underhandedly).

- Quaff-tide: Time for a drink. "Tide" comes from the Danish word "tid", meaning, "time". The concept of dreaming is also Scandinavian. "Quaff" comes from Irish Gaelic, and probably means "cup".

- Quench-coal: A figurative word meaning something that puts out a fire. It could be used to mean something that extinguishes thoughts you are having.

- The place where you might be well advised to skip the queue is Turkey. However, there it was the letter "Q". The Turkish banned the letters "Q", "X" and "W" until 2013, because while the Turkish language doesn't use the letter "Q", the Kurdish language does us it, and thus the letter was banned due to anti-Kurdish sentiment. These three letters could not appear on official documents and people could not use them when naming children. Until the early 1990s, it was illegal in Turkey for the 15-20 million Kurds (about 20% of the country's population) to use any Kurdish at all in public.

- Tangent: Lou and Alan talk about how the French and Italians don't like queuing. Alan comments that old ladies in Italy will burrow into the queue and someone get to the front before you do. Jimmy says that as she is old and doesn't have long left that she should be allowed first, while people with kids should be at the back of the queue because they have ages to spare. Lou had a friend who managed to skip a queue in hospital because she had a finger cut off.

- Tangent: Lou asks if due to them banning the letter "Q", did the Turkish ever have Quavers.

- XL Tangent: The earliest version of the letter "Q" is Phoenician. It was called the "qoph", dates from about 10,000 BC, and is thought to have meant "monkey", the letter looked a bit like a monkey's face with a tail hanging from it. However, another theory states that the letter looks like a sewing needle. Modern day equivalents include the @ sign, which in Dutch is known as, "the monkey's tale" or, "apestaartje". In German @ is called "Klammeraffe", meaning, "spider", or "hanging monkey". In Danish @ is called, "snabel", meaning, "elephant's trunk".

- XL Tangent: "Q" is the least common letter in the English language, and there are arguments to suggest we do not need it at all. The letters "KW" make the exact same sound". Alan thus suggests that Kwik Fit is Turkish. In 90AD, a Roman emperor stated that the letter "Q" was redundant except for the purpose of attaching vowels to itself. That emperor was called Quintilian. Languages that do not use the letter "Q" include Estonian, Icelandic, Latvian, Polish, Slovenian and Danish. Denmark abolished the use of the letter from native words in 1872. The Danish word: "enkelt", which doesn't really translate into English, roughly means: "beautiful through simplicity".

- The panel are played the sound of someone typing on a computer keyboard and are asked what they are trying to say. QWERTY keyboards can be "translated" by listening to the different pitches each key makes. If you had just a microphone, hackers could discover your log-ins, passwords and any other confidential information that you might be typing. Each key hits a different part of the keyboard's under-plate, meaning that there is a slightly different sound for every single key, and algorithms have been made to translate the sounds. A hacker would only need 10 minutes to translate one keyboard, according to computer scientists at the University of California, Berkeley. Knowing all this, we are then shown what was being typed: "ALAN! SAY 'BLUE WHALE' NOW FOR 100 POINTS!" Alan does not say it in time.

- Tangent: Sandi comments that every time she sees a man type, they only ever use one finger at a time. When she as at school all the girls were taught how to type, and they were taught by tying an apron to the top of the typewriter and around your neck, so you had to type without seeing the keyboard. Alan jokes that the all boys' school, you were taught to dictate, at which point he hides behind Lou to avoid an angry Sandi, who says: "I think the key part of the word is 'dick'."

- XL Tangent: Roger Babson, an early 1900s statistician, suffered from tuberculosis and believed that fresh air was going to be good for him. Thus he always had the windows open and all his female staff had to wear hooded onesies (which as Lou points out look a bit like Ku Klux Klan robes) to keep themselves warm. One woman was so cold she had to use little hooked hammers to type.

- XL Tangent: In history, men have only started to type recently, because the first mass-produced typewriters were advertised with women using them, the idea being that this sexist advert was saying that the machines we so simple that even a woman could use them. Thus, men did not want to be emasculated by being seen typing. It was then agreed that women would spell and type better, would raise the tone of the office, and then the women would marry and leave without a pension. When Sandi first stated working at the BBC in the early 1980s, no men typed at all. All the men were producers who would speak into Dictaphones, and the women would type everything up.

- Tangent: The buzzers of the panel all play extracts from The Typewriter Symphony by American composer Leroy Anderson, which is the theme tune to BBC Radio 4's satirical panel game The News Quiz and is played on an actual typewriter. The panel are shown a video of the music being played by Martin Breinschmid with the Strauß Festival Orchestra, Vienna. The typewriter used to play the music is modified so only two keys are used, otherwise the typewriter would jam.

- In the original novels, James Bond's gadget expert is not called "Q". He is only called Q in the films, while in the novels they only refer to the "Q Branch". The character of Q is thought to have been based on a real inventor called Charles Fraser-Smith, who worked at the clothing department at the Ministry of Supply, but whose real job was creating gadgets for the Secret Service. They were called "Q gadgets" after the "Q ships" of World War One, which were warships disguised as freighters. The Q ships got their name from their home port of Queenstown (now called Cobh) in Ireland. These ships were designed to lure U-boats to the surface, and as soon as the U-boat came the ship would reveal all their armaments. 44 Q ships were destroyed, but they also destroyed 15 U-boats. (Forfeit: Q)

- XL Tangent: The first person to play Q in the Bond films was Desmond Llewelyn. Among the devices made by Charles Fraser-Smith were a map, saw and compass hidden inside a hairbrush; a pipe which could be smoked without ruining the map which was hidden inside the bowl, but he did this by lining the pipe with asbestos; a map made out of invisible ink which was made visible by covering it in urine; and developing garlic-infused chocolate bars, so when British agents dropped into France they would smell convincingly.

- XL Tangent: In "The Man with the Golden Gun", one of the devices Q gives to Bond is a fake nipple, because the film's villain, Scaramanga, has three nipples, but no-one knows it is him, so Bond pretends to be Scaramanga and is given a fake nipple in order to do so.

- XL Tangent: Possibly the least convincing Bond gadget is a alligator-shaped submarine in "Octopussy". Other unconvincing gadgets include an invisible car; dentonite, an explosive toothpaste; a ski pole rocket-launcher; and a bagpipes flame-thrower.

- XL Tangent: Ian Fleming had his own sort-of Bond gadget, which was a gold-plated typewriter he made for himself, after he finished writing "Casino Royale". His nephew Fergus said that his literary acquaintances considered this typewriter to be the height of vulgarity.

- Tangent: The James Bond theme is based on a song about a man with an unlucky sneeze. Composed by Monty Norman the song Bad Sign, Good Sign came from a failed musical based on V. S Naipaul's novel A House for Mr. Biswas, in which the title character has an unlucky sneeze. When Norman was commissioned to write the music for Dr. No he re-worked this tune into the Bond theme. To prove this everyone including the audience performs some "Quaraoke" and sings Bad Sin, Good Sign. The words are:

"I was born with this unlucky sneeze

And what is worse I came into the world the wrong way round

Pundits all agree that I'm the reason why

My father fell into the village pond and drowned."

- The thing you would find in Mrs. Q's memoirs is lots of sex. Mrs. Q was the name used by courtesan Harriette Wilson. Wilson started her career aged 15 as a mistress of Lord Craven. She had lots of lovers, with some people suggesting she had a relationship with the Prince Regent, but there is no evidence for this. When Wilson announced that she was going to write her memoirs she said: "Any concerned gentlemen could pay £200 to avoid being written about." Among the men she asked was the Duke of Wellington, who refused to pay and famously replied: "Publish and be damned." The memoirs were published in 1825 in four volumes, and was so popular a barrier had to be set up outside the publishers' offices. The publishers and Wilson made £10,000 from sales of the memoirs. The opening line of the memoirs is: "I shall not say how and why I became, at the age of 15, the mistress of the Earl of Craven."

- Tangent: The nearest modern equivalent to Harriette Wilson's memoirs is the autobiography of Stormy Daniels, the American porn star who claimed that Donald Trump paid to keep their affair secret. The chapter concerning Trump beings: "OK, so did you just skip to this chapter?" She later writes: "My life is a lot more interesting than an encounter with Donald Trump, but I get it. Still, of all the people who I had sex with, why couldn't the world obsess over one of the hot ones?" Daniel then went on a tour called, "Make America Horny Again", and is now working a stand-up comedian.

- XL Tangent: Probably the most controversial piece of adult literature is "Lady Chatterley's Lover". In 1960, the book was prosecuted under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, which was considered socially shocking due to it featuring an upper-class woman having an affair with a working-class man. Jimmy comments about the class element, in that if "Fifty Shades of Grey" was about a working-class man being the dominant figure, the book would be very different, and somehow the fact that Christian Grey is a billionaire makes it more acceptable. In the "Lady Chatterley's Lover" case, the defence prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones, famously misunderstood the working-class jury when he pleaded with them: "Is it a book that you would your wife or your servants to read?" The jury returned with the verdict of: "Not guilty" and sales rocketed, selling three million books in three months. In the USA, the phrase: "Banned in Boston", came into being because the city was seen as prudish, and anything with that phrase on it would sell in huge numbers.

- The most disgusting panel you can think of is a quilt full of MRSA. Anna Dumitriu, the 2018 President of the Science and Arts section of the British Science Association, made a quilt where every panel was impregnated with MRSA bacteria. While the quilt was heavily treated, the bacteria was Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, of which MRSA is the deadly strain. Dumitriu was trying to highlight the dangers of antibiotic resistance. She got the bacteria out of her own nose and grew it on the quilt.

- Tangent: Western settlers gave Native Americans blankets infected with diseases like smallpox to "subdue" the population.

- XL Tangent: Part of the problem regarding antibiotic resistance is people eating food, especially meat and milk, which has been pumped full of antibiotics to stop the animals becoming ill, that the antibiotics are in us anyway.

- Tangent: During various wars in the 19th century, it was very common for soldiers to make rather intricate quilts, often made from scraps of uniform. These were called "convalescence quilts". Some of the most complex have 25,000 pieces of fabric in them.

- Tangent: When Sandi was a child, duvets were called, "continental quilts". Alan remembers when they first came to Britain, he was in a hotel which didn't have sheets and blankets, and thus he didn't know what to do, given that you couldn't tuck the duvet in. They first came into Britain in 1964 by Habitat, who advertised them saying that you could make a bed so quickly, just a few shakes, that even a man could do it. All five panel members then have a duvet changing competition, to see who is fastest. Lou wins. Alan is given a child's duvet with blue whales on it.

General Ignorance

- The thing that should happen to Dr. Jekyll's trousers when he turns into Mr. Hyde is that they should fall off. When he transforms, Hyde becomes smaller, because he represents Dr. Jekyll's evil side. It is films and TV adaptations which show Hyde as being bigger than Jekyll, upon which The Incredible Hulk is based on. The original novel by Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired by Deacon Brodie, who lived in 18th century Edinburgh, and by day was a respectable cabinet maker, lock maker and Town Council member, but by night he used the keys that he made to break into people's homes and steal their stuff, helped by his accomplice George Smith. As a child, Stevenson had a wardrobe at the end of his bed made by Brodie. Brodie was eventually hanged, although there is a story that Brodie wore a steel band around his neck, survived and escaped to Paris. (Forfeit: They rip)

- XL: The rhyme about the Queen of Hearts baking tarts was written in 1782. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland did not come out until 1865. The original rhyme had many more verses about the King of Spades, King of Clubs, the Diamond King, which have since been forgotten because they were rather rude. The King of Hearts beats the Knave until he gives the tarts back, the King of Spades kills the maids, while the Knave of Clubs gives winks and rubs. (Forfeit: Lewis Carroll)

- XL Tangent: "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" has never been out of print. It celebrated its 150th birthday in 2015. Working titles for the book include: "Alice's Adventures Under Ground", "Alice Among the Fairies" and "Alice's Hour in Elfland".

- The Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz is coloured in various different colours. It gets its name because everyone in the city wears glasses with emerald lenses. When Dorothy first goes to the city she is told that she must was a pair of protective glasses in order to avoid being blinded by the brightness. It is later revealed by the Wizard that he makes everyone wear green glasses so that things appear green, and when asked if it means anything the Wizard replies: "No more so than any other city, but my people have worn green glasses on their eyes so long, that most them think it really is an emerald city." (Forfeit: Green; Emerald)

- Tangent: The Wizard of Oz is an allegory for America. The farmers are the Scarecrow who needs a brain, industry was the Tin Man and industry doesn't have a heart, and the Cowardly Lion was the politicians who didn't have any courage.

- Tangent: Lou says she needed to wear protective glasses when her "Jack and Danny" are lasered. "Jack and Danny" is rhyming slang for "fanny". When he was growing up Jimmy remembers the rhyming slang being: "A fine china". Lou says this appropriate because you get it out for special occasions.

- XL Tangent: Seattle is also known as the Emerald City, because it is surrounded by water and evergreen forests. Jimmy recently performed in Seattle and in Portland, Oregon. Jimmy played in the Aladdin Theatre, which used to be a cinema. It showed one film there for 20 years, namely the porn film "Deep Throat". The man working at the theatre told Jimmy: "Don't put a blue light on in there."


- Alan Davies: 5 points (Alan's 36th victory)
- Lou Sanders: -6 points
- Jimmy Carr: -13 points
- Tom Allen: -26 points

Broadcast details

Friday 24th January 2020
30 minutes

Cast & crew

Regular cast
Sandi Toksvig Host / Presenter
Alan Davies Regular Panellist
Guest cast
Jimmy Carr Guest
Tom Allen Guest
Lou Sanders Guest
Writing team
James Harkin Script Editor
Anna Ptaszynski Script Editor
Sandi Toksvig Script Editor
Anne Miller Question Writer
Production team
Diccon Ramsay Director
John Lloyd (as John Lloyd CBE) Series Producer
Piers Fletcher Producer


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