trivia / trivial

Why is inconsequential or useless knowledge known as trivia? The answer dates back to the medieval educational curriculum.

The seven liberal arts were broken into two courses of study. The upper level was known as the quadrivium (Latin for four way) and consisted of the mathematical sciences of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The lower level consisted of grammar, rhetoric, and logic and was known as the trivium.

So things that any beginning student would learn were known as trivial. From Higden’s Polychronicon from 1432-50:

Sche...hade noble auditors and disciples, to whom sche redde the arte trivialle.
(She...had noble auditors and disciples, to whom she read the trivial arts.)

By the end of the 16th century, the adjective had come to mean anything that was unimportant or inconsequential. From Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2 (III.i):

We haue but triuiall argument, More then mistrust, that shewes him worthy death.

The noun trivia appears at the beginning of the 20th century, first in the sense of things of little importance. Logan Pearsall Smith published a 1902 book with the title Trivia. And there is this from the Glasgow Herald of 21 July 1920:

His method suggests the amount of human interest and knowledge that may lurk in the trivia of holiday experience.

The sense of useless bits of knowledge comes from the game of Trivia popularized in the 1960s. From the Brisbane Courier-Mail of 27 June 1968:

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.

It is commonly claimed that the word trivia comes from the Latin meaning three ways (tri- + via). A crossing of three roads would be a place where people would gather and gossip. This is a fanciful, and quite false, explanation that takes the literal meaning of the Latin roots, but ignores the historical context of the word.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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