In a Word: Trivia Three Ways

The word ‘trivia’ has come a long way from the streets of Rome.

Three dirts path lead from a forest and converge close-by

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With the Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time tournament in full swing, many of us are boning up on our trivia to try to compete — from the comfortable, low-pressure environment of our own living rooms — with Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, and James Holzhauer. It seems a fitting time, then, for some trivia trivia:

The word trivia was originally the plural of the Latin trivium, which breaks neatly in half: the tri- indicates “three” (as in triple and trinity), and -vium comes from the Latin word for “road.” A trivium was a place where three roads converged. These intersections naturally became places where travelers, strangers and friends alike, commonly met, so the adjective form of the word, trivialis, came to mean “public” and then more broadly “commonplace.” By the mid-16th century, English had adopted trivial to mean “commonplace, ordinary.”

But, like the roads at a trivium, the word trivia took another course as well. In Roman mythology, the goddess Diana is a triple deity, meaning — depending on your interpretation — that she is three deities worshiped as one or one deity worshiped in three discrete aspects. In her triple aspect, she was referred to as Diana Trivia, a three-way Diana, representing the convergence of Diana, goddess of the hunt (Artemis in Greek mythology); Luna (Selene), goddess of the moon; and Hecate, an ancient underworld deity and the goddess of witchcraft, who helped Ceres (Demeter) search for Proserpina (Persephone) after Pluto (Hades) kidnapped her. Hecate would become Proserpina’s companion during the third of each year Proserpina was confined to the Underworld.

In 1716, English poet and playwright John Gay brought these two etymological courses together, choosing Trivia as the name for his goddess of the streets in the poem “Trivia; Or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London.” Almost two centuries later, American author Logan Pearsall Smith, influenced by Gay’s poem and his own knowledge of etymology, published a book simply titled Trivia. Smith, however, leaned more heavily on the “commonplace” aspect than the “goddess” one. Privately published in 1902 and then republished by Doubleday in 1917, this somewhat popular book was a collection of short pieces (some only a sentence long) about small, commonplace experiences and events.

Smith’s book sparked new life into the word trivia as a word for commonplace events, and then by extension as facts about commonplace things. By the mid-1960s, trivia games, in which players would quiz each other about otherwise useless bits of information about pop culture, had become a fad among college students.

In 1981, while those former ’60s college trivia buffs were building families, the Trivial Pursuit board game was released and became an immediate hit. (Here’s some trivia: The game was invented in Canada.) Sales of the game peaked in 1984, which — coincidence or not — was the same year that the game show Jeopardy! was relaunched with Alex Trebek (also Canadian) as host, and it’s been going strong ever since.

Now, it wouldn’t be fitting for a word based on the coming together of three roads to go in only two directions, would it? There is a third word route here, and it was actually the word’s first use in English: In early 15th-century academics, the trivium was the first three liberal arts — grammar, rhetoric, and logic — and trivial was an adjective meaning “from the trivium.”

Considering all the threesomes inherent in the many lives of trivia, is it a coincidence, then, that Jeopardy! features three contestants, and not two or four?

Featured image: Shutterstock

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