The trivia (singular trivium) are three lower Artes Liberales, i.e. grammar, logic and rhetoric. These were the topics of basic education, foundational to the quadrivia of higher education, and hence the material of basic education and an important building block for all undergraduates. The word trivia was also used to describe a place where three roads met in Ancient Rome. While the term is now obsolescent, in ancient times, it was appropriated to mean something very new.
In the 1960s, nostalgic college students and others began to informally trade questions and answers about the popular culture of their youth. The first known documented labeling of this casual parlor game as "Trivia" was in a Columbia Daily Spectator column published on February 5, 1965. The authors, Ed Goodgold and Dan Carlinsky, then started the first organized trivia contests, described below. Since the 1960s, the plural trivia in particular has widened to include nonessential, specifically detailed knowledge on topics of popular culture. The expression has also come to suggest information of the kind useful almost exclusively for answering quiz questions, hence the brand name Trivial Pursuit (1982).
The Latin neuter noun trivium (plural trivia) is from tri- "triple" and via "way", meaning "a place where three ways meet". The pertaining adjective is triviālis. The adjective trivial was adopted in Early Modern English, while the noun trivium only appears in learned usage from the 19th century, in reference to the Artes Liberales and the plural trivia in the sense of "trivialities, trifles" only in the 20th century.
The Latin adjective triviālis in Classical Latin besides its literal meaning could have the meaning "appropriate to the street corner, commonplace, vulgar." In late Latin, it could also simply mean "triple". In medieval Latin, it came to refer to the lower division of the Artes Liberales, namely grammar, rhetoric, and logic. (The other four Liberal Arts were the quadrivium, namely arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, which were more challenging.) Hence, trivial in this sense would have meant "of interest only to an undergraduate".
The adjective trivial introduced into English in the 15th to 16th century was influenced by all three meanings of the Latin adjective:
- A 15th century English translation of Ranulf Higdon mentions the arte trivialle, referring to the trivium of the Liberal Arts.
- the same work also calls a triuialle distinccion a threefold division. This is due to an application of the term by Arnobius, and was never common either in Latin or English.
- the meaning "trite, commonplace, unimportant, slight" occurs from the late 16th century, notably in the works of Shakespeare.
Trivia was used as a title by Logan Pearsall Smith in 1902, followed by More Trivia and All Trivia in 1921 and 1933, respectively, collections of short "moral pieces" or aphorisms. Book II of the 1902 publication is headed with a purported quote from "Gay's Trivia, or New Art of Walking Streets of London.",
- "Thou, Trivia, goddess, aid my song: Through spacious streets conduct thy bard along."
The February 5, 1965 Columbia Spectator article did not revive the word "trivia"; it humorously applied the grandiose Latin term to topics like, "Who played the Old Gypsy Woman in The Wolfman?" (Answer: Maria Ouspenskaya.) Nor had "trivia" ever implied contests about such matters. Columbia University students Ed Goodgold and Dan Carlinsky, who had proposed the new use in their original article, swiftly created the earliest inter-collegiate quiz bowls that tested culturally (and emotionally) significant yet essentially unimportant facts, which they dubbed "trivia contests". The first book treating "trivia" in the radical new sense was Trivia (Dell, 1966)-- again by Goodgold and Carlinsky, which achieved a ranking on the New York Times best seller list; the book was an extension of the pair's Columbia contests and was followed by other Goodgold and Carlinsky trivia titles. In their second book, More Trivial Trivia, the authors criticized practitioners who were "indiscriminate enough to confuse the flower of Trivia with the weed of minutiae"; Trivia, they wrote, "is concerned with tugging at heartstrings," while minutiae deals with such unevocative questions as "Which state is the largest consumer of Jell-O?" (Answer: California) But over the years the word has come to refer to obscure and arcane bits of dry knowledge as well as nostalgic remembrances of pop culture.
The largest current trivia contest is held in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point's college radio station WWSP 89.9 FM. This is a college station with 11,500 watts of power and about a 65-mile (105-kilometre) radius, and the contest serves as a fund raiser for the station. The contest is open to anyone, and it is played in April of each year spanning 54 hours over a weekend with eight questions each hour. There are usually 400 teams ranging from 1 to 150 players. The top ten teams are awarded trophies. The 44th WWSP contest was held in April 19–21, 2013.
The two longest continuous trivia contests in the world are those at Lawrence University and Williams College, which both debuted in the spring of 1966. Lawrence hosts its contest annually, and its 43rd installment was held in January 2008. Unusually, Williams has a separate contest for each semester, and thus its 84th game took place in May 2008.
The University of Colorado Trivia Bowl was a mostly student contest featuring a single-elimination tournament based on the GE College Bowl. Many of the best trivia players in America trace participation through this tournament including many Jeopardy! and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? contestants. The current event now is a regional qualifier for T.R.A.S.H. (Testing Recall About Strange Happenings) and utilizes a round robin competition format.
Today, many bars and restaurants host weekly trivia nights in an effort to draw in more patrons, especially during weeknights.
The other subculture is the quizbowl format found in high schools and universities in the U.S., as well as in elementary, middle, and junior high schools; the Canadian equivalent is competition geared toward Reach for the Top, among high schools, although Canadian universities and a few high schools are beginning to participate in U.S. quiz bowl leagues. The National Academic Quiz Tournaments is a national organization, founded in 1996, sponsors high-school and college-level tournaments across the nation.
- "Columbia Daily Spectator 5 February 1965". Columbia University Archives. Retrieved 2014-04-18.
- trans. Higden (Rolls Series, dating to 1432-50) VI. 333 to whom sche redde the arte trivialle (translating trivium legeret), cited after OED.
- trans. Higden (Rolls Series) VI. 333 Giraldus of Wales, which describede Topographie of Irlonde, Itinerary of Wales, and the Lyfe of Kinge Henry the Secunde, under a triuialle distinccion (translating sub triplici distinctione), cited after OED.
- Henry VI, Part 3 (1593) We haue but triuiall argument.
- "Project Gutenberg etext". Gutenberg.org. 2005-07-01. Retrieved 2012-04-28.
- "Trivia World". Triviahalloffame.com. Retrieved 2008-12-23.
- Jennings, Ken. "Chapter 13: What is Tradition?". Brainiac. Retrieved 2008-12-23.
- "University of Colorado Heritage Center". Cualum.org. Retrieved 2008-12-23.
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