How the 20 Questions game came to America

Perhaps it's time for a 20 Questions game. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Perhaps it’s time for a game of 20 Questions. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images;;

Have you ever played 20 Questions? This popular 19th century parlour game became the basis for a number of 20th century radio and television quiz shows. Though it has been said that the 20 Questions game was invented in the United States, it actually originated on the other side of the Atlantic. Twenty Questions was introduced to Americans through British Prime Minister George Canning, who appears in Napoleon in America. Let’s sit in on a game he played in 1823.

Misty origins

The idea that the 20 Questions game was invented in the United States can be traced to a book published in New York in 1882. Twenty Questions: A Short Treatise on the Game – essentially a rule book with some examples of the game for beginners – did not base its claim on strong evidence.

The origin of the game of Twenty Questions, like that of many other things, is lost in the mists of antiquity. Like everything else, it probably had a prototype among the upper Himalayas. The internal evidence, however, is strong from its purely intellectual nature, that in its present form it is a game of New England origin, and was probably invented by some intellectual Pequot, near the mouth of the beautiful river where has long been its chief dwelling point. (1)

In fact, the first references to 20 Questions appeared in Great Britain. In 1829, Scottish teacher William Fordyce Mavor recommended the “Game of Twenty” as a means of agreeably passing a long winter evening.

I will teach you the outlines of an amusing art, which you may fill up by practice, and vary with occasion. It is the art of telling what another thinks on, by appropriate questions and answers.

[Tutor]: Fix your thoughts on something familiar by use….
[Pupil]: I have fixed, Sir.
Q.1. Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral; or in other words, to which of the three kingdoms of nature does it belong?…

[I]f you do not discover in twenty questions what is thought on, you lose the game. Hence it has been called the Game of Twenty. I have known some few persons, who were such perfect adepts in the art, that the most abstruse word, single idea, or even historical fact that could be conceived, would have been solved by them, far within the limited number of interrogations. This proficiency, indeed, requires great strength of memory, a mind well stored with knowledge, and corrected by taste; but much humbler attainments will enable you to amuse and be amused. (2)

A 20 Questions game with Mr. Canning

American references to the 20 Questions game did not appear until 1845, when Richard Rush, a former US ambassador to Great Britain, published memoirs of his time in London. Rush described a dinner party he attended on July 20, 1823, with George Canning (who was then Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs), some of Canning’s friends and colleagues, and a few diplomats.

Ten o’clock arriving, with little disposition to rise from the table, Mr. Canning proposed that we should play ‘Twenty Questions.’ This was new to me and the other members of the diplomatic corps present, though we had all been a good while in England. The game consisted in endeavours to find out your thoughts by asking twenty questions. The questions were to be put plainly, though in the alternative if desired; the answer to be also plain and direct. The objects of your thoughts not to be an abstract idea, or any thing so occult, or scientific, or technical, as not to be supposed to enter into the knowledge of the company; but something well known to the present day, or to general history. It might be any name of renown, ancient or modern, man or woman; or any work or memorial of art well known, but not a mere event, as a battle, for instance. These were mentioned as among the general rules of the game, serving to denote its character. It was agreed that Mr. Canning, assisted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who sat next to him, should put the questions; and that I, assisted by Lord Granville, who sat next to me, should give the answers. Lord Granville and myself were, consequently, to have the thought or secret in common; and it was well understood that the discovery of it, if made, was to be the fair result of mental inference from the questions and answers, not any signs passing, or hocus pocus of any description. With these as the preliminaries, and the parties sitting face to face, on opposite sides of the table, we began the battle.

First question (by Mr. Canning). – Does what you have thought of belong to the animal or vegetable kingdom?
Answer. – To the vegetable.
Second question. – Is it manufactured, or unmanufactured?
Third. – Is it a solid or a liquid?
A solid.
[How could it be a liquid, said one of the company, slyly, unless vegetable soup!]
Fourth. – Is it a thing entire in itself, or in parts?
Fifth. – Is it for private use or public?
Sixth. – Does it exist in England, or out of it?
In England.
Seventh. – Is it single, or are there others of the same kind?
Eighth. – Is it historical, or only existent at present?
Ninth. – For ornament or use?
Tenth. – Has it any connexion with the person of the King?
Eleventh. – Is it carried, or does it support itself?
The former.
Twelfth. – Does it pass by succession?
[Neither Lord Granville nor myself being quite certain on this point, the question was not answered but, as it was thought that the very hesitation to answer might serve to shed light upon the secret, it was agreed that the question should be counted as one, in the progress of the game.]
Thirteenth. – Was it used at the coronation?
Fourteenth. – In the Hall or Abbey?
Probably in both: certainly in the Hall.
Fifteenth. – Does it belong specially to the ceremony of the coronation, or is it used at other times?
It is used at other times.
Sixteenth. – Is it exclusively of a vegetable nature, or is it not, in some parts, a compound of a vegetable and a mineral?
Exclusively of a vegetable nature.
Seventeenth. – What is its shape?
[This question was objected to as too particular; and the company inclining to think so, it was withdrawn; but Mr. Canning saying it would be hard upon him to count it, as it was withdrawn; the decision was in his favour on that point, and it was not counted.]
Seventeenth (repeated). – Is it decorated, or simple?
[We made a stand against this question also, as too particular; but the company not inclining to sustain us this time, I had to answer it, and said that it was simple.]
Eighteenth. Is it used in the ordinary ceremonial of the House of Commons, or House of Lords?
Nineteenth. Is it ever used by either House?
Twentieth. Is it generally stationary or movable?

The whole number of questions being now exhausted there was a dead pause. The interest had gone on increasing as the game advanced; until, coming to the last question, it grew to be like neck-and-neck at the close of a race. Mr. Canning was evidently under concern lest he should be foiled, as by the law of the game he would have been, if he had not now solved the enigma. He sat silent for a minute or two; then, rolling his rich eye about, and with a countenance a little anxious, and in an accent by no means over-confident, he exclaimed, “I think it must be the wand of the Lord High-Steward!” And it was….

The questions were not put in the rapid manner in which they will be read; but sometimes after considerable intervals, not of silence – for they were enlivened by occasional remarks thrown in by the company…. It lasted upwards of an hour, the wine ceasing to go round. On Mr. Canning’s success, for it was touch-and-go with him, there was a burst of approbation, we of the diplomatic corps saying, that we must be very careful not to let him ask us too many questions at the Foreign Office, lest he should find out every secret that we had! (3)

Rush’s account of this 20 Questions game was widely circulated in periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic. Twenty Questions was promoted in the United States as a pleasant pastime for both adults and children. It continues to be played in the 21st century, both in traditional and electronic forms. If you want to give the 20 Questions game a try, click here for some tips on how to play.

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  1. Mansfield Tracy Walsorth, Twenty Questions: A Short Treatise on the Game (New York, 1882), p. 7.
  2. William Mavor, Miscellanies in Two Parts (Oxford, 1829), pp. 140-141.
  3. Richard Rush, A Residence at the Court of London, Comprising Incidents, Official and Personal, from 1819 to 1825, Vol. II (London: Richard Bentley, 1845), pp. 16-21.

2 commments on “How the 20 Questions game came to America”

  • luciano tanto says:

    Una variante de este juego, en los países sudamericanos, es el “Veo veo, ¿qué ves?”, que implica reconocer algo, o alguien, a través de preguntas.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Luciano. I suspected there were variants of the 20 Questions game in other countries, which may predate the English version.

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Proficiency, indeed, requires great strength of memory, a mind well stored with knowledge, and corrected by taste; but much humbler attainments will enable you to amuse and be amused.

William Fordyce Mavor