“That’s so trivial!” We hear that all the time, but what does it mean? Well, I asked the same question as I was working on my last installment of Silly Philology, I Could Care Less. In that post I brought up the distinction between semantics and triviality or banality, which then led me to question the etymology of “trivial”. To my dismay, I found the origin.
Trivial means “belonging to the trivium”. I was horrified when I found this out because “Trivium” means “the place where the three roads meet” (think “tri” and “via”). So what are these three roads that are meeting in the trivium? Logic, grammar, and rhetoric- the first three of the seven Liberal Arts! A medieval education consisted of the trivium, and the quadrivium. The quadrivium (quad = four)- a term coined by Boethius- was made up of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. I’ve been studying the trivium lately, so needless to say, I was pretty triggered to find out where trivial comes from!
If you google trivial you’ll see it defined as “of little value or importance” and “(of a person) concerned only with trifling or unimportant things.” You’ll find synonyms such as banal, trite, common, foolish, silly, frivolous, superficial, etc.
That’s how far this word has degenerated. The Trivium- the three most important areas of education- the system and structure of languages, the art/science/skill of valid thinking, and the art of effective and persuasive speaking and writing- the word for thinking, speaking, and writing- has somehow morphed into our conception of “trivial”. What the heck is going on?
This really doesn’t make sense to me! “That’s so trivial” should be a good thing given the word’s etymology.
As an aside, for those who are familiar with Triperspectivalism, the trivium is indeed a triad. Logic is the normative perspective, the study of right thinking. Grammar is the situational perspective, the structure of our thoughts in language. And Rhetoric is existential perspective, it’s the art of conveying our thoughts in a persuasive and clear manner.
Trivium, like semantics, has somehow come to mean the opposite of what it used to mean. I don’t get this trend, and I definitely don’t like it. Though it’s not too late for semantics, I’m afraid trivial might be too far gone, we may never get it back now.
Maybe this has just been an exercise in triviality, but who knows, maybe that’ll be a good thing in a generation or two.