Latin meaning and etymology
The trivia (singular trivium) are three lower Artes Liberales: 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 ancient Romans used the word triviae to describe where one road split or forked into two roads. Triviae was formed from tri (three) and viae (roads) – literally meaning "three roads", and in transferred use "a public place" and hence the meaning "commonplace."
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 Higden 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 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."
Trivialities, bits of information of little consequence was the title of a popular book by British aphorist Logan Pearsall Smith (1865-1946), first published in 1902 but popularized in 1918 (with More Trivia following in 1921 and a collected edition including both in 1933). It consisted of short essays often tied to observation of small things and commonplace moments. Trivia is the plural of trivium, "a public place." The adjectival form of this, trivialis, was hence translated by Smith as "commonplace."
In the 1918 version of his book Trivia, Smith wrote:
I KNOW too much; I have stuffed too many of the facts of History and Science into my intellectuals. My eyes have grown dim over books; believing in geological periods, cave dwellers, Chinese Dynasties, and the fixed stars has prematurely aged me.
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 author, Ed Goodgold (né Edwin F. Goodgold; born 1944), then started the first organized "trivia contests" with the help of Dan Carlinsky. Ed and Dan wrote the book Trivia (Dell, 1966), 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?" 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 board game Trivial Pursuit was released in 1982 and was a craze in the U.S. for several years thereafter.
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 30,000 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 51st WWSP contest is currently underway, although with temporary modifications due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The two longest continuous trivia contests in the world are the Great Midwest Trivia Contest at Lawrence University and the Williams Trivia Contest, which both debuted in the spring of 1966. Lawrence hosts its contest annually. 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. In recent years, the event has been conducted in a round robin competition format and operated as a regional qualifier for T.R.A.S.H. (Testing Recall About Strange Happenings).
Today, many bars and restaurants host weekly trivia nights in an effort to draw in more patrons, especially during weeknights.
- Knowles, Elizabeth, ed. (2006). The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Oxford University Press, UK. p. 175. ISBN 978-0-19-157856-4.
- Harper, Douglas. "trivial". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2015-10-02.
- 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.
- Gay, John (1730). Trivia: Or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London. Internet Archive. London: Bernard Linton.
- Trivia Archived 2015-12-26 at the Wayback Machine, Online Etymology Dictionary
- "Columbia Daily Spectator 5 February 1965". Columbia University Archives. Archived from the original on 18 April 2014. Retrieved 2014-04-18.
- "Trivia World". Triviahalloffame.com. Archived from the original on 2008-05-16. Retrieved 2008-12-23.
- Jennings, Ken. Chapter 13: What is Tradition?. Brainiac. Archived from the original on 2009-01-24. Retrieved 2008-12-23.
- "Festivus repeats as Trivia champions". stevenspointjournal.com. Retrieved 1 May 2018.
- "University of Colorado Heritage Center". Cualum.org. Archived from the original on 2007-02-03. Retrieved 2008-12-23.