The History of Trivia
Here at Sporcle, we have dedicated exorbitant amounts of time to ensuring that you, Sporclers, have plenty of resources to waste as much time and get as little work done as possible by playing trivia quizzes. We spend all of our time thinking about and obsessing over trivia, but we rarely stop to think about the origins of the word and the history of trivia itself.
While the dictionary defines trivia as “unimportant facts or details,” we tend to disagree: we think trivia is of the utmost importance. But from where does the word trivia come?
Etymology of the word trivia
First off, what is the singular form of trivia? I mean, you realize that trivia is plural, right?
So, technically, when we say a trivia question or a piece of trivia, we could actually refer to these as trivium. We don’t, and people would think you were weird if you did, but you could.
“Trivium” in Latin, means “triple way” = tri (three) and via (way). In medieval Europe, students learned the “trivium,” which comprised of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. After students learned the trivium, they focused on the quadrivium, which comprised of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
The term trivia, as we think of it today, dates back to 1589, referring to insignificant pieces of information, which were only interesting to a few educated folks.
Modern usage of the word trivia
It wasn’t until the 20th century that we began to associate trivia with random factoids like we do now. Specifically, in British aphorist Logan Pearsall Smith’s book, Trivialities: Bits of Information of Little Consequence, first published in 1902 and popularized in 1918, we have the first recorded use of the the term trivia as we think of it today.
Trivia on TV in the 1950s
The 1950s marked an important time in the history of trivia, as quiz shows such as Dotto, The $64,000 Question, and Twenty One became extremely popular. These shows had high ratings until in it was revealed in 1959 that the producers of these shows were feeding answers to the contestants. The Quiz Show Scandals, as they were known, resulted in quiz shows disappearing from network television. It wasn’t until 1982, when Merv Griffin came up with the idea to reintroduce Jeopardy!, that we again had a quiz show on network TV. After the continuing popularity of Jeopardy!, new shows started to pop up in the 1990s, such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Win Ben Stein’s Money.
In pursuit of the trivial
Even after trivia gameshows went off the air in the late-1950s, trivia was still popular. Ed Goodgold and Dan Carlinsky organized the first quiz bowl competitions at Columbia University and went on to publish the book Trivia, which became a bestseller.
No history of trivia would be complete without mentioning Trivial Pursuit. In 1979, Canadians Chris Haney, a photo editor for Montreal’s The Gazette, and Scott Abbott, a sports editor for The Canadian Press, invented the game Trivial Pursuit over a couple of beers at Haney’s apartment.
Haney and Abbot continued to develop the game, and in 1982 they released to the public. Trivial Pursuit’s success was beyond that either Haney or Abbott could dream of. The game generated over $800 million in sales in 1984 alone. Since its debut, the game has sold over 100 million copies and has been played by an estimated 1 billion people worldwide. No doubt, the world fell back in love with trivia.
Tired of being unable to find a website that would fulfill his trivia addiction, founder Matt Ramme decided to take matters into his own hands and create Sporcle, the web’s leading trivia website. Recently celebrating our 10 year anniversary, Sporcle has been allowing users to create online trivia quizzes for the last seven years.
So, now you know a bit about how trivia has entered, left, and reentered our culture awareness. Undoubtedly, with the advent of online trivia, bar trivia, and all of the other ways in which we now consume trivia, the complete history of trivia has yet to be written.
Matthew Groner is a Staff Writer for Sporcle. He enjoys foraging for gourmet mushrooms and calculating the odds of the Kansas City Chiefs winning a Super Bowl in his lifetime.