Patrick O'Brian Discussion Forum

‘ . . Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma, and who strangled Atahualpa . . ’


A General Knowledge (GK) Quiz requires a common idea of what is and isn’t GK. When I was a lad 60 years ago it was defined as ‘What Every schoolboy knows’ - a phrase popularised by Thomas Macaulay in his 1840 essay on Clive of India. ‘Schoolboy’ of course meant the select few who had attended on of Britain’‘s Public (= fee-paying) Schools or a decent free Grammar School and had therefore had, willy-nilly, a vast stock of such facts beaten into them.

OED must have received a wide range of quotes for this phrase and cites six of them:

Every schoolboy knows: used to refer to an item of factual information that is supposed to be generally known (sometimes used humorously with reference to obscure or specialized information).
. . 1795   T. Pownall Considerations Scarcity & High Prices of Bread-corn & Bread Pref. p. vi   Every school-boy knows that the nut will not shell until it is a brown-sheller.
1840   Macaulay in Edinb. Rev. Jan. 295   Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma, and who strangled Atahualpa.
1872   Lancet 27 July 113/2   Every schoolboy knows that if he visit a nest too often, or disturb it in any way, the old birds will desert their little ones.
1900   Cornhill Mag. Sept. 382   The meal which is most characteristic of Yorkshire, as every schoolboy knows, is the high tea.
1963   New Scientist 26 Sept. 658/2   Every schoolboy knows that one sphere can be surrounded by up to twelve others of equal size, so the function g (r) rises steeply to a maximum..then oscillates a few times.
1995   J. M. Kolkey Germany on March ii. 28   As every schoolboy knows, the joint Austro-Prussian military invasion of France was halted short of Paris at a battle that became known as the Miracle of Valmy.’

Nowadays the rise of universal secondary education and college education for the majority there is no GK - just General Ignorance - GI.

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