Let’s say you’re reading something that mentions quarks, the atomic particles from which neutrons and protons are made. You’re not familiar with the term, so you ask a physicist, “What is a quark?”
She responds, “I’ll find it strangely charming if you can identify these particles with a word taken from ‘Finnegans Wake.’ ”
Cool. Thanks, doc.
This is the conceit at the center of the eternally popular and eternal game show “Jeopardy!.” The questions are framed as answers and the answers must be given in the form of a question. I don’t know why it’s done this way and, for our purposes, it isn’t important. But that’s how it works. In the case of the answer-question pair above, from the category “Physics Test” last year, the screen offered that line about “Finnegans Wake” with a hint to the correct response — “strange” and “charm” being “flavors” of quarks. (This weirdness, too, isn’t important for our purposes.) The knowledgeable contestants buzzed in, racing to say, “What is a quark?” first.
In a nutshell, this is how every question (in the show’s parlance, every clue) works. Instead of saying “What particle takes its name from ‘Finnegans Wake’ and is associated with the terms ‘strange’ and ‘charm’?” “Jeopardy!” mixes everything up. It’s just how it’s done.
Going back to our original scenario, though, flipping the conceit makes obvious how weird it is. To put a fine point on how far from useful the “answers” to the show’s “questions” are, we created the tool below, which uses data from the viewer-generated database J-Archive.com to generate a “Jeopardy!”-world Wikipedia. (Our thanks to them for working with us on this.)
Ask it whatever you want — Who is Golda Meir? What is butter? — and see how the show would answer those questions. (The citations present the year and category of the clue.)
Hey, “Jeopardy!,” what is oxygen? “Antoine Lavoisier proved that burning & rusting are caused by a union of this element with other chemicals.” Oh. Got it.
Having access to all of these answers allows us to pick out some interesting details. The correct responses aren’t always consistent; entering “Washington Post” displays different clues than “The Washington Post,” for example. But we can generally see the sorts of things that “Jeopardy!” finds interesting. Chemical elements. Numbers. Places.
For example, since the current iteration of the show went on the air in 1984, no state has been the correct response to a “Jeopardy!” question more often than California.
Let’s take a brief break to watch the pilot.
Anyway: California is the state that’s most often been asked about. (A sample clue: “The ocean current named for this most populous state flows south at a slow, you might also say mellow, pace.”) In second? Alaska, oddly enough, perhaps because it is replete with interesting little factoids that can be offered up as a clue. (A sample: “When abbreviated before the number 47, this state becomes an assault weapon.” Helpful.)
Least asked-about: North Dakota. (“A city named Beach is found in this landlocked U.S. state wedged between Montana & Minnesota.”)
Both Australia and China are more popular as responses than California, being the subject of 318 and 317 questions, respectively. France is nearly three times as popular as England; Canada is more popular than Mexico.
Among the presidents, the most popular are the ones you’d expect: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Each has been the correct response to a clue on more than 150 occasions. In fourth place, a perhaps unexpected executive: Ronald Reagan. But then the show overlapped with Reagan’s second term. As other presidents emerged over the course of Jeopardy’s time on the air, they suddenly found their way into clues.
Notice that this isn’t really the case for Donald Trump. He first appeared as a clue in 1988 in a category titled “The Jet Set.” “The centerpiece of his real estate empire is the 68-story 5th Ave. tower he named for himself,” the clue read, which is actually a pretty decent answer to the question “Who is Donald Trump?”
Some bad news for the current president, though: Hillary Clinton has been the answer to a clue more than twice as often as he has. The first time the correct question was “Who is Hillary Clinton,” the associated answer from Jeopardy was: “This famous woman came up with the title ‘Evening Shade’ for a TV series produced by two of her friends.”
The most recent Clinton clue? “In 2016 to her supporters: ‘We must accept this result and then look to the future.’ ”
Thanks to his pre-presidential fame, Trump’s already passed the least-popular president in “Jeopardy!’ s” responses. That honor goes to James A. Garfield, who’s only mentioned 17 times. These figures, we’ll note, are for responses that include both the first and last name.
If, on the other hand, you were to say to our “Jeopardy!” Wikipedia (Wikipardy? Jeopedia?) “Who is Garfield?” you would be particularly confused.
“Jim Davis named this cat after his grandfather, not the 20th president,” it tells you. “In 2006 this comic strip cat turned 28. He was the fourth president to die in office & the second to be assassinated.”