trivial – trivia


Trivial Pursuit

Trivial Pursuit – photograph: The Telegraph




The Latin noun trivium, from the combining element tri-, three, and via, way, denoted a place where three roads meet, hence a fork in the roads, a crossroad.

The adjective trivius, feminine trivia, was an epithet of the deities whose temples were erected where three ways met. Diana in particular was called Trivia (or Trivia deadea = goddess), hence Lacus Triviae (the Lake of Diana), a lake in Latium, near Aricia, now Lago di Nemi.

The noun trivium came to designate a public square, the public street, a highwayThis usage was derogatory: the Roman statesman, orator and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) wrote, in Oratio pro L. Murena:

Non debes M. Cato, arripere maledictum ex trivio. (You ought not, Marcus Cato, to pick up abusive expressions out of the streets.)

From this sense, the adjective trivialis, literally that is in, or belongs to, the cross-roads or public streets, came to mean that may be found everywhere, commonplace, trivial, vulgar. For example, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus – circa 35-96 AD) wrote, in Institutio Oratoria:

Litterarii paene ista sunt ludi et trivialis scientiae. (Such subjects belong to the elementary school and the rudiments of knowledge.)


The sense of the English adjective trivial, from Latin trivialis, was influenced by the fact that, in European schools and universities from late antiquity to the early modern period, the trivium was the lower division of the seven liberal arts, comprising grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The quadrivium consisted of the four mathematical sciences: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

The adjective trivial therefore was used to mean belonging to the trivium of university studies, as in this passage from an anonymous 15th-century translation of Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden maonachi Cestrensis, a universal history originally written by the English monk Ranulf Higden (circa 1280-1364):

Iohannes Anglicus, borne in Magoncia, succedid Leo the pope ij. yere and v. monethes: but hit is seide that this pope was a woman, and brouȝhte in yonge age from here cuntre to Athenes in the habite of a man by her specialle; where sche profite so gretely yn connynge in so moche that sche commynge to Rome hade noble auditors and disciples, to whom sche redde the arte trivialle.
     literal translation:
John the English, born in Magoncia, succeeded Leo the pope during two years and five months. But it is said that this pope was a woman, and brought in young age from her country to Athens in the habit of a man by her close friend; where she profited so greatly in learning insomuch that she, coming to Rome, had noble auditors and disciples, to whom she read the trivial arts.


The English trivia, a modern Latin noun, is the plural of Latin trivium and was influenced in sense by trivial. It appeared in 1902 as the title of a privately published book by Logan Pearsall Smith (1865-1946), an American-born British essayist and critic known for his aphorisms and epigrams (the 1917 edition popularised this work). In his anthology Modern Essays (1921), the American author Christopher Morley (1890-1957) thus introduced his selection from Pearsall’s Trivia:

It would be extravagant to claim that Pearsall Smith’s Trivia, the remarkable little book from which these miniature essays are extracted, is well known: it is too daintily, fragile and absurd and sophisticated to appeal to a very large public. But it has a cohort of its own devotees and fanatics, and since its publication in 1917 it has become a sort of password in a secret brotherhood or intellectual Suicide Club. I say suicide advisedly, for Mr. Smith’s irony is glitteringly edged. Its incision is so keen that the reader is often unaware the razor edge has turned against himself until he perceives the wound to be fatal.

The following is from the 1917 edition of Trivia:


Their taste is exquisite; They live in Georgian houses, in a world of ivory and precious china, of old brickwork and stone pilasters. In white drawing rooms I see Them, or on blue, bird-haunted lawns. They talk pleasantly of me, and their eyes watch me. From the diminished, ridiculous picture of myself which the glass of the world gives me, I turn for comfort, for happiness, to my image in the kindly mirror of those eyes.
Who are They? Where, in what paradise or palace, shall I ever find Them? I may walk all the streets, ring all the door-bells of the World, but I shall never find them. Yet nothing has value for me save In the crown of Their approval; for Their coming—which will never be—I build and plant, and for Them alone I secretly write this little Book, which They will never read.

From this sense of trifles, things of little consequence, trivia came to denote useless information or matters of little importance. Princeton Alumni Weekly of 9th November 1965 had the following:

Trivia Madness

“O.K., who is the hero of Wind in the Willows?” asked the smug senior to a group of listeners. “I know, it’s Thaddeus Toad!” shouted another, and the game was on. The name of the game is Trivia, and it has become the latest murderer of polite conversation on Prospect St. The purpose is to ask questions of nickel knowledge, usually derived from childhood, to a group of friends. Everyone at one time or another was an expert at something, and Trivia justifies all that formerly useless knowledge. [...]
The ultimate in this fall madness came when Princeton fought its way to a fourth-place finish out of four competing schools in the informal Ivy League Trivia contest held at Columbia. [...]
The source of trivia is popular culture—a distinction which separates Trivia from its cousins Botticelli and Twenty Questions. Nobody really wins in this game which concentrates on sports, comics and television. Everyone knows that Amos’s wife on the “Amos ’n’ Andy Show” is Ruby, but who knows that she is from Marietta, Georgia? Trivia players do. They also know the fourth man in the infield of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, the Canadian who shot down Baron Von Richtofen, and can name ten Hardy Boy books. The current champion, it seems, is one senior who not only knows the names of horses belonging to Gene Autry, Dale Evans, Robert E. Lee and Alexander the Great, but also knows the real names of Minnie Minoso, Dizzy Dean and Wrong-way Corrigan.

The name was popularised in the 1960s by the quiz game Trivia. The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Australia) of 27th June 1968 had:

A game called trivia, so called because it’s trivial [...] The trivia game is sweeping the world. A kind of quiz or exchange of useless information.

The board game Trivial Pursuit was first marketed in Canada in 1982.

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