Pursuing the meaning of trivia

Pursuing the meaning of trivia
Source: Reusableart.com

News Item: Chicago Now’s Trivia Angels — Jack Silverstein, Alan Rubenstein, Kevin Kaufman, Erin Vandenberg, Jocelyn Geboy, Melanie Bowen, Howard Moore and Margaret Laing — won the Trivia Challenge tournament hosted by the Asian-American Journalists Association on Nov. 15 at Loyola University in Chicago. All of us were new to the game.

Even before our team met for the first time and began Saturday’s trivia contest, I wondered about the origins and meaning of the word “trivia.” It didn’t come up in the tournament, which was based on questions about events in 1984, 1989, 1999 and 2004, but that’s OK. That’s the beauty of life as a writer about words — everything is material.

(Not numbers, you say? But you can spell them out as words…. hmmm. But I digress!)

The word trivia, according to my dictionary, is “from the Latin trivialis, of the crossroads, hence commonplace, from trivium, a place where three roads meet (from tri-, three, and via, road).” The first definition is “trifling, of little importance.” The second is “commonplace (archaic).” The third, listed as rare, is “occupying oneself with trifles; trifling.”

More intriguing to me is the fourth definition: trivia was “relating to or of the trivium (the lower division of the seven liberal arts — grammar, logic and rhetoric).”

That grabbed my attention — those three are the lower arts! I looked up the other four under the word the dictionary mentions, quadrivium — just to save you readers a trip, of course. The other four classical liberal arts are arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy.

There’s even a fifth definition of trivia — “in botany and zoology, (a) popular, as distinguished from technical, as the trivial name of a tree; (b) specific, as distinguished from generic.”

So there you have it, all I could catch up to about trivia. See, it is Serious!

For more fun with words, stop by the Margaret Serious page on Facebook.


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  • I have the feeling that trivia isn't that "popular" or "commonplace" if the usual trivia contest is who can answer the obscure, but unimportant.

    That is unless the average TV quiz show is correct that the average 20 something doesn't know who JFK was. On the other hand, I can't identify any of the rappers.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks to you, Jack -- and thanks to my teammates. With a mix of ages, we had some people experts in one time period and others who were too young or too old to care about the same times. (As for the surveys of average 20-somethings, they are scary, eh?)

  • Congrats on the big win and a great post!

  • In reply to Kathy Mathews:

    Thank you very much -- in both cases.

  • Well-done, Trivia Angels! Fascinating post.

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    Many thanks. I was and am amazed by how much I remembered -- and, yes, forgot -- about each year we covered.

  • Congratulations, Margaret. BTW, here's Sherlock Holmes' take on the subject:

    "Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. it is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Sort of like chionophobia was the WGN Time for Trivia today. I remembered the answer, but not the term. Thank goodness for Google.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks for an amazing word, Jack. It may need defending in another post. As for Google, well, I keep trying to spell it Goggle. It has its uses, but I don't want to surrender to it! The memory power at the tournament is already one of my favorite memories of it.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you for the kind words, and for the great new way to use an old favorite (or favourite) quotation. To continue the motif, as a team we "hit upon the method," figuring out that the pictures added to each question were clues or confirmations of the answers. "Never trust to general impressions, my boy," Holmes told Watson, "but concentrate yourself upon details." So we did. So we won.

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