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Trivia (singular: trivium) are unimportant (or "trivial") items, especially of information.

In the late 20th century the expression came to apply more to information of the kind useful almost exclusively for answering quiz questions: a perfect "trivia question" is one that initially stumps the listener, but the answer subsequently sounds familiar once revealed (otherwise the question would be considered either too familiar and therefore not trivia, or so unfamiliar and obscure as to be unanswerable and not as entertaining).


The etymology of the word trivia seems to start with Latin tri- = "three", and via = "way", "road", thus trivium, which has been treated in three ways:

  • Where three roads meet, especially as a place of public resort. The Latin adjective triviālis, derived from trivium, thus meant "appropriate to the street corner, commonplace, vulgar." The first known usage of the word "trivial" in Modern English is from 1589; it was used with a sense identical to that of triviālis. Shortly after that trivial is recorded in the sense most familiar to us: "of little importance or significance." Gradually, the word trivia came to be used in English for what in Latin would have called "triviālia", for anything information or concern which is treated as everyday and unimportant.
  • The Three Ways (first known used in English in a work from 1432–1450). This work mentions the "arte trivialle", referring to the trivium, which was the three Artes Liberales (Liberal Arts) that were taught first in medieval universities, namely grammar, rhetoric, and logic. (The other four Liberal Arts were the quadrivium, namely arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, which were more challenging.) Hence, trivial in this sense would have meant "of interest only to an undergraduate".
  • The Roman courier network Cursus publicus which was set up by Emperor Augustus. Messengers traveled the Roman Empire taking messages from one province to the next. At crossroads notice boards would display gossip or news from Rome....hence 'trivia'.

The word trivia was popularized in its current meaning in the 1960s by Columbia University students Ed Goodgold and Dan Carlinsky, who created the earliest inter-collegiate quiz bowls that tested culturally significant yet ultimately unimportant facts, which they dubbed "trivia contests". The first book treating trivia of this universal sort was Trivia (Dell, 1966) by Goodgold and Carlinsky, which achieved a ranking on the New York Times best seller list; the book was an extension of the pair's Columbia contests and was followed by other Goodgold and Carlinsky trivia titles. In their second book, More Trivial Trivia, the authors criticized practitioners who were "indiscriminate enough to confuse the flower of Trivia with the weed of minutiae"; Trivia, they wrote, "is concerned with tugging at heartstrings," while minutiae deals with such unevocative questions as "Which state is the largest consumer of Jell-O?" But over the years the word has come to refer to obscure and arcane bits of dry knowledge as well as nostalgic remembrances of pop culture.

Quiz shows

In the 1960s, nostalgic college students and others began to informally trade questions and answers about the popular culture of their youth. The first known documented labeling of this casual parlor game as "Trivia" was in a Columbia Daily Spectator column published on February 5, 1965. A stage contest held in Columbia's Ferris Booth Hall on March 1 of that year, reported in campus press and the New York Post, was the first occasion in which the pastime was formalized. On , 1965, four Columbia students appeared on the TV quiz show I've Got a Secret and competed in a trivia contest with the show's regular panelists. A much-publicized First Annual Ivy League-Seven Sisters Trivia Contest was held at Columbia the same semester. By 1966, other campuses had instituted Trivia bowls while colleges such as Lawrence University and Williams College began radio contests which continue to this day. In this manner, the codified form of the diversion became an institution.

In 1974, a former Sacramentomarker air traffic controller named Fred L. Worth published The Trivia Encyclopedia, which he followed in 1977 with The Complete Unabridged Super Trivia Encyclopedia, and in 1981 with Super Trivia, vol. II. The popularity of books by Goodgold and Carlinsky, Worth and others in the 1960s and 1970s laid the groundwork for the first edition of the board game Trivial Pursuit in the early 1980s.

The enormous success of this game led to the re-launch of Jeopardy! in the United States, reviving a quiz show genre that had been dormant since the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. The American TV broadcaster ABC had a surprise hit with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, an import of a successful British quiz format which launched another wave of interest in trivia. In both the UK and Canada, the quiz format has enjoyed continuous success since the 1950s, untouched by the scandals that dogged the American format.

In addition to the mass media trivia, there have also been two entrenched trivia subcultures. One is the pub quiz phenomenon, which is especially prevalent in Great Britain and in select U.S. cities, particularly in pubs that serve a large Irish American community. (The U.S. pub quiz scene is crimped by the popularity of Buzztime, a satellite-based game.)

Wilson Casey is an American columnist, book author, entertainer, speaker, and record holder. He earned two Guinness World Records (trivia marathon and radio broadcasting) for a thirty-hour live, continuous broadcast on radio station WKDY-AM on January 9 - 10, 1999 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. During the 30 hours he asked and identified the correct answer to 3,333 questions. Casey is regularly called and labeled "The Trivia Guy".

Quiz bowls

The other subculture is the quizbowl format found in high schools and universities in the U.S., as well as in elementary, middle, and junior high schools; the Canadian equivalent is competition geared toward Reach for the Top, among high schools, whereas Canadian universities are beginning to participate in U.S. quiz bowl leagues.

The largest current trivia contest is held in Stevens Point, Wisconsinmarker, at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point's college radio station WWSP 89.9 FMmarker. This is a college station with 11,500 watts of power and about a 65 mile (105 km) radius, and the contest serves as a fund raiser for the station. The contest is open to anyone, and it is played in April of each year spanning 54 hours over a weekend with eight questions each hour. There are usually 500 teams ranging from 1 to 50 players. The top ten teams are awarded trophies. The 40th WWSP contest was held in April 2009.

The two longest continuous trivia contests in the world are those at Lawrence University and Williams College, which both debuted in the spring of 1966. Lawrence hosts its contest annually, and its 43rd installment was held in January 2008. Unusually, Williams has a separate contest for each semester, and thus its 84th game took place in May 2008.

The University of Colorado Trivia Bowl was a mostly student contest featuring a single-elimination tournament based on the GE College Bowl. Many of the best trivia players in America trace participation through this tournament including many Jeopardy! and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? contestants.

See also



  • FunTrivia
  • English Heritage Dictionaries (2000). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.). Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0-395-82517-2.

External links

  • - Trivia Games on the Web
  • – Humor and "Useless Fact" Pages

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