I’ve been worried lately, what with being a responsible husband and father, that my nerd credentials have been slipping. I haven’t discussed Star Trek or comic books with anyone in years. (I did try to explain to someone this summer that I didn’t want to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes because it was too different from the real way the apes came to power, as described in the book. It didn’t go over well.)
(By the way, “the book” is Monkey Planet, by Pierre Boulle, and I recommend it highly.)
Interestingly, Boulle also wrote The Bridge on the River Kwai.
So anyway, I decided to get some nerdcred back by hosting a trivia night at the restaurant down the road from my house. Last Tuesday was the first one, and it was a lot of fun. If you’re in the area on a Tuesday night, stop on in at Mizza’s and play a round or two.
As a result of this, I’ve been thinking about trivia a lot in recent weeks. Usually, what I think about is trivial, but now what I think about is trivia. Have you ever thought about what trivia is? Or, better yet, what the word trivia means? Surprisingly, it’s really easy to figure out. More surprisingly, it’s intimately connected to the educational system of the Middle Ages as well as to many of today’s colleges and universities.
Liberal Doesn’t Always Mean “Left Wing”
Did you go to a liberal arts college? The term liberal arts dates back to the late 1400s, and has nothing to do with politics. It comes from liberal, which came about in the late 1300s, and meant “noble” or “generous.” Liberal derived from the Latin word liberalis, which means, as you might guess, “noble” or “generous,” but literally translates to “fit for a free man.” (Liber = “free” — liberation, liberty, etc.)
So the liberal arts were the things free and/or noble men needed to learn, as opposed to the kinds of things someone needed to learn in order to run a business. Back towards the end of the Roman Empire, the number of liberal arts was set at seven: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric (the art of speaking or writing effectively), Arithmetic, Geometry, Astrology, and Music.
These seven were divided into two groups, with Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric in the first one, and Arithmetic, Geometry, Astrology, and Music in the second. These groups were called the “three roads” and the “four roads,” because each discipline was a road to … ummm … I dunno, erudition or fulfillment or something, I guess. And given that the ancient Romans spoke Latin, and scholars continued to speak Latin throughout the Dark and Middle Ages, the terms “three roads” and “four roads” were used in Latin: trivium and quadrivium.
Ohhh! Now I Get It!
Trivia. Tri via. Three roads. Simple, right?
Ehh — not that simple. Lots of sources say that trivial comes from trivium because the trivium was considered unimportant or common, while the quadrivium was cool and handsome and popular. But I don’t think that’s right. All seven of these disciplines were intended for free, noble, important people, remember? It seems to me that they were divided into two groups simply because three of them dealt with words and four dealt with numbers.
So I’m going to go with the sources that say trivial, meaning “common,” “ordinary,” or “unimportant,” was first applied to the kinds of things ordinary, unlearned people talked about when they ran into each other at crossroads — you know, where three roads meet. So forget everything I said about that liberal arts stuff. It doesn’t apply here.
From Trivial to Trivia
For nearly 300 years, the word trivial was pejorative. I mean, most people would not be happy if they or something of theirs was called “common,” “ordinary,” or “unimportant,” right? Then, in 1917, L.P. Smith published a book of … well, I can’t even say “essays,” since most of them were one or two or three paragraphs long. “Random thoughts” is, I guess the best description. Anyway, the book, as you saw if you clicked the link back there, was called Trivia. And while Smith labelled his musings as unimportant, he still thought they were important enough to publish. So while trivial has always meant “unimportant,” the very first (that I could find) use of the word trivia seems to mean “stuff that’s unimportant but still vaguely interesting.”
Still, trivia didn’t become a pastime until the 1970s. WARNING: THIS PARAGRAPH IS BASED ENTIRELY ON PERSONAL RECOLLECTION. The first time I heard the word trivia, or was asked a trivia question, was in 1969, give or take a year or so. (For those of you who care (i.e., no one), the question was: “Who is Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend?”) It seems to me that the early 70s was when trivia books started hitting the shelves in large numbers. It was also a time when you could watch game shows on TV from 9:00 in the morning straight through to 1:00 in the afternoon, and on the commercials you could usually flip over from one game show to another.
Now, of course, there are only five game shows on TV, and three of them are on at night. (And of those five, Let’s Make a Deal, Deal or No Deal, and probably Wheel of Fortune have nothing to do with trivia.) Even so, trivia seems to be just as big or bigger than ever, with new books coming out all the time, and pub trivia really taking off in different places across the country.
Which is what I plan to cash in on, baby!