• Paul Anthony Jones

Trivia

(n.) random information, typically of little concern or importance


One thing that HH deals with quite a lot (all the time, in fact) is trivia. Random bits of throwaway information. Miscellaneous facts. About things like poop-spraying monsters and shipwrecked cats. And of course this:

Dissect the word trivia under an etymological microscope and you’ll find two fairly predictable Latin roots: tri–, taken from the Latin for “three” (as in triangle), and –via, the Latin word for “road” or “way” (as in “you can only get into town via the diversion at the end of the high street that takes you two-and-a-half miles out your way”).

But how did a word that apparently means something like “three roads” come to imply “random information”?

Well, the answer lies in the early Middle Ages with a little-known scholar named Martianus Minneus Felix Capella, born in Roman north Africa more than 1,500 years ago. As well as having a name that sounds like a magic spell, Capella was one of the first major proponents of a classical system of learning called the Seven Liberal Arts—namely, seven fundamental subjects he and his contemporaries considered the cornerstones of a good education.

Diagram of the Seven Liberal Arts, origin of trivia

Capella’s work continued to be studied and discussed long after his death, until eventually the idea of the Seven Liberal Arts had become a well-established part of Western education. Although precisely what these seven subjects were changed a bit over time, by the Early Modern period the complete set was widely understood to be arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, grammar, rhetoric and logic.

The first four of these—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music—were considered the more worthwhile “mathematical sciences”, dealing with concepts of quantity and magnitude. As such they were set apart from the others as a distinct tier of higher learning known as the quadrivium, a play on the Latin word for a crossroads. The remaining three subjects—grammar, rhetoric and logic—ultimately comprised a lower tier of learning, dealing purely with matters of prose and language; in contrast, it became known as the trivium, the Latin word for a place where three (rather than four) roads meet.

Because this trivium was considered the less important of the two tiers, by the late nineteenth century its name (or rather, its plural trivia) had come to be used of less important knowledge in general, and eventually any random, throwaway facts or pieces of information. Precisely like this one.


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