Why Do We Call General Knowledge “Trivia”?

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Why do we dismiss pointless things as trivial, and call pointless things trivialities? And why are tidbits of general knowledge and other useless pieces of information called trivia?

Pull apart the word trivia, and you’ll be left with two fairly familiar Latin roots. On the one hand there’s tri, derived from the Latin for “three” and found in everything from triple and triangle to triceratops and trichloroethylene. And on the other hand there’s via, a Latin word for “road” or “way” that we still use when describing routes and directions today (and from which words like viaduct and deviate are derived). Put those two together, and you’ll have trivia, a word that literally means something like “three roads.” So how did that come to mean “random information”?

The answer to that lies with Martianus Capella, a little-known scholar born in North Africa some time around the turn of the 5th century CE. Capella was one of the earliest major proponents of a classical education system based around the “Seven Liberal Arts,” or artes liberales—namely, seven fundamental subjects or sciences that Capella and his advocates saw as the cornerstones of a good, well-rounded education.

Although the idea of a basic curriculum comprising a handful of essential disciplines is an ancient one, Capella was one of the first writers to outline explicitly what he thought those individual subjects should be.

In a bizarre allegory called The Marriage of Philology and Mercury written sometime in the early 400s, Mercury offers his bride-to-be Philology a wedding present of seven handmaidens, each representing one of seven fundamental subjects: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music or harmony, grammar, rhetoric, and logic. It was these seven disciplines that Capella saw as the Seven Liberal Arts, or the subjects that every “liberal” or free citizen of Rome should take it upon themselves to study.

The idea of Seven Liberal Arts remained popular long after Capella’s death; by the medieval period, much of western European education and scholarship was based around a strong understanding of these seven core subjects. Understand them, and you could essentially understand anything.

That’s not to say that all seven of Capella’s Liberal Arts were considered equally valuable. Because they dealt with the tricky concepts of quantity and magnitude in their various different forms, the four “arts” of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music were together known as the “mathematical sciences,” and taken as occupying a higher and more worthwhile tier of learning known as the quadrivium (a play on a Latin word for a crossroads, or a meeting of four roads). The remaining three arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic consequently comprised a lower tier of learning, as they dealt merely with matters of prose and language, and so together became known as the trivium (a play on a Latin word for a place where three roads meet).

The idea of the Seven Liberal Arts, as well as the two-tier arrangement of the quadrivium and trivium, remained popular in Europe for centuries to come, before tastes finally began to change during the Renaissance. As the importance of a knowledge of history, politics, art, and poetry—as well as the likes of anatomy and medicine, and the newly emerging chemical and biological sciences of the late Middle Ages—began to grow, the need for a knowledge of more classical subjects like logic diminished.

By the 16th and 17th centuries, the classical Seven Liberal Arts were beginning to be redefined, if not discarded altogether in favor of more up-to-date systems of learning. The importance of a classical education remains popular today, but Capella’s system has long been abandoned—which isn't to say that it has disappeared altogether.

The Latin word for a crossroads, trivium, gave rise to a Latin adjective, triviālis, which was also used more figuratively to mean “commonplace,” “vulgar,” or “ordinary”—a reference to the kinds of language or behavior found literally on street corners. This meaning was imported to English in the late 1500s as the word trivial, which has remained in use ever since to describe anything ordinary or trite.

But because the trivium was considered the lesser of the two tiers of the Seven Liberal Arts, over time its plural form trivia also gained a separate figurative meaning: it came to be associated not just with commonplace or ordinary things, but with inconsequential knowledge or learning and, by the late 19th century, with random, throwaway facts or pieces of information. By the 1960s, the first trivia games and trivia quizzes to use the term trivia began to emerge, and the word has continued to be associated with general knowledge ever since.

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