The Grammarphobia Blog

Trivial pursuit

Q: My dictionary says the English word “trivia” is derived from the plural of the Latin trivium, a place where three roads meet. How did a word with such an etymology come to mean details of little importance?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary defines “trivia” as a plural noun meaning “trivialities, trifles, things of little consequence.”

The word was first recorded with that sense in 1902, according to the OED, as the title of the book Trivia, a collection of small essays by Logan Pearsall Smith.

Where did Smith get it? He offers a clue in his book by quoting these lines from a 1716 poem, John’s Gay’s Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London:

Thou, Trivia, Goddess, aid my song,
Throu’ spacious streets conduct thy bard along.

Gay didn’t use “trivia” here to mean unimportant things. He was using the modern Latin word trivia as the name of his muse and in the sense of a crossroads: tri for “three” and via for “ways.”

In modern Latin, trivia (three ways) is the plural of trivium (a place where three ways meet).

So what inspired Smith to adapt a word for “three ways” to mean trivialities?

He was probably influenced not only by John Gay but also by the familiarity of the adjective “trivial,” from the classical Latin trivialis (meaning appropriate to the streets, common, or vulgar).

In 1589, “trivial” was first used to mean commonplace, everyday, or familiar, the OED says. (This sense harks back to the old notion of the crossroads as an ordinary or common place.)

By the 1590s “trivial” was being used to mean “of small account, little esteemed, paltry, poor; trifling, inconsiderable, unimportant, slight.”

The OED‘s first citation for this meaning is from Shakespeare’s Henry VI (1593): “And yet we have but trivial argument.”

I’ll bet you still have an unanswered question. If “trivia” is a plural, did we ever use “trivium” as the English singular? The answer is yes, but not to mean something unimportant.

In the Middle Ages, according to the OED, the English word “trivium” meant “the lower division of the seven liberal arts, comprising grammar, rhetoric, and logic.”

The “quadrivium” (literally, a place where four ways meet) comprised arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

When “trivial” was first recorded, in the mid-1400s, it meant having to do with the “trivium” of medieval studies. It took more than a century for “trivial” to adopt its trifling but very durable meaning.

In short, “trivia” was a natural, waiting to be discovered, and Logan Pearsall Smith discovered the word as we know it.

Not only does it nicely echo “trivial,” but its Latin ending sounds appropriate for a collective English noun (analogous to “data,” “media,” “ephemera,” and so on).

Dwight L. Bolinger, in a 1940 article in the journal American Speech, says he asked Smith how he came up with the word. Here’s the answer:

“Mr. Smith writes to me that he adapted to his purpose the punning title of John Gay’s poem Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London. Gay used it because it suggested the city and a goddess worthy to be his muse. The word did not mean trifles for Gay.”

Your question was no trifle, either, and my answer was no trivial pursuit.

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