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Q From Geoff Mattingley: Can you advise the correct derivation of trivial? I have had quoted to me several times that it means “three roads”, where the Romans would post notices, gossip etc. This seems to me too cute, as there are few instances of three roads meeting — crossroads would have been more useful. Also, why would the notices be called after the location — why not the Latin for notices or twitter?

A Variations on this story turn up from time to time. This one has been embellished, since the bit about posting notices doesn’t fit what we know about the Roman period. There is indeed a connection, quite a strong one, but the story’s rather more complicated.

The word trivium in classical Latin was made up of tri, meaning three, plus via, a road or way, so it literally did mean a place where three roads met. But a frequent sense was of a crossroads, as you suggest would be more appropriate. The word later took on a figurative sense of the street corner, a place where the common people met and passed the time of day. Something trivialis, the adjective from trivium, was commonplace, ordinary or everyday.

However, the first sense of trivial in English, in the fifteenth century, referred to a quite different matter. In the educational system of medieval times, learning was organised in seven aspects, the liberal arts, where liberal meant study suitable for a free man, a gentleman, a person not tied to a trade. It was divided into two groups. The first part — you might call it Liberal Arts 101 — was called the trivium. This comprised grammar, logic and rhetoric; a more advanced set, the quadrivium, consisted of the mathematical sciences — arithmetic, geometry and astronomy — together with music. The Latin names for these two divisions of learning likewise came from via, and you might translate them as the threefold way and the fourfold way. Trivial was the adjective applied to the trivium. Because the quadrivium was thought to be more difficult to learn than the trivium and dealt with matters that were less commonly met with in daily life, the subjects of the trivium came to be thought of as ordinary or of lesser status.

Our modern sense of the word was first used by Shakespeare, in the second part of Henry VI, more than a century after it had begun to be applied to the trivium.

Those with a knowledge of Latin — that was everybody involved in education at the time, of course — also knew what Romans of the classical period meant by trivialis. That must have powerfully influenced the development of the modern sense of trivial but doesn’t seem to have been its foundation.

Page created 15 Aug. 2009

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Last modified: 15 August 2009.