trivial pursuit by Andrew Miller

The Liberal Arts is a curriculum of seven subjects, the first three of which are called the trivia (grammar, rhetoric and logic). Its literal meaning in Latin could have been, ‘appropriate to the street corner, commonplace, vulgar.’

In medieval Latin, it came to refer to the lower division of the Liberal Arts (the other four 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 meaning ‘trite, commonplace, unimportant, slight’ occurs from the late 16th century, notably in the works of Shakespeare.

The term had become, during the 20th Century, as forgotten as the system of education it pertained to when it was ironically appropriated to mean something very new. 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 in 1965. The authors, Ed Goodgold and Dan Carlinsky, then started the first organized trivia contests. Since the 1960s, the plural trivia in particular has widened to include knowledge that is nice to have but not essential, specifically detailed knowledge on topics of popular culture. The expression has also come to suggest information of the kind useful almost exclusively for answering quiz questions, hence the brand name ‘Trivial Pursuit,’ trademarked in 1982.

A 1965 Columbia Spectator article humorously applied the grandiose Latin term to topics like, ‘Who played the Old Gypsy Woman in The Wolfman?’ (Answer: Maria Ouspenskaya.) Columbia University students Ed Goodgold and Dan Carlinsky, who had proposed the new use in their original article, swiftly created the earliest inter-collegiate quiz bowls that tested culturally (and emotionally) significant yet essentially unimportant facts, which they dubbed ‘trivia contests.’ The first book treating ‘trivia’ in the radical new sense was ‘Trivia’ (1966)– again by Goodgold and Carlinsky; 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?’ (Answer: California) 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.

Before the books, Goodgold and Carlinsky had already staged contests. In 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 Sacramento 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. However, the U.S. pub quiz scene is being impacted by the popularity of Buzztime, a touchscreen quiz game available at some bars.

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 largest current trivia contest is held at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point’s college radio 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 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 2008. Unusually, Williams has a separate contest for each semester, and thus its 84th game took place that year.


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