University Challenge plays the name game

Did one contestant's seven-syllable surname give him an advantage in last night's final? asks Paul Jones

I usually manage to answer a handful of questions on University Challenge, but last night I was so distracted I hardly even registered most of them. This year’s final saw reigning champions Manchester take on UCL, who had on their team a contestant by the name of Papaphilippopoulos.


As he buzzed in to answer questions, it became increasingly clear to me that the time it took valiant announcer Roger Tilling to pronounce Papaphilippopoulos’s seven-syllable name conveyed a significant advantage.

Contestants are often still groping for the answer when they hit the buzzer, which makes any extra thinking time before Paxman pounces invaluable. Seven syllables, people: count ‘em.

But it wasn’t just Papaphilippopoulos’s name that skewed the match. By my calculations, the surnames of the UCL team contained a total of 14 syllables (perhaps more, depending on how you pronounce Tyszczuk Smith), compared with just five in their opponents’. That’s nine more syllables in the names of one team than the other. Over the quiz’s 25-minute or so running time, that’s got to add up. 

As it turned out, Manchester retained the title by a healthy 50-point margin, but towards the end of the game UCL were pegging them back. Another ten minutes and the surname advantage might have paid off. And what if the match had been more evenly balanced? 

At the end of the quiz, Professor Martin Rees trundled on to present the trophy. His message? “Part of the game is being able to press the buzzer while you’re still thinking.”

The words of the Astronomer Royal, not mine…