Verbal Energy

The nontrivial pursuits of summer

A metaphor of three roads diverging – or converging – underlies a group of words describing what really matters, and what doesn’t.

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    The tall ship the Spirit of South Carolina is pictured. Monitor writer Ruth Walker links a nautical joke she once heard to the concept of 'non-trivial.'
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“Three roads diverged in a yellow wood....”

What’s that? Frost had only two roads?

Indeed. But the convergence of three paths is the idea behind a number of words for some things that are “trivial” and others that are not.

Trivial, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, is from the Latin trivialis: “common, commonplace, or vulgar.” The adjective comes from trivium, a “place where three roads meet,” or public square.

Since the late 1500s, trivial has meant “ordinary,” “insignificant,” or “trifling.”

But trivium came into English in the early 1400s. It meant the “first three branches” of learning – grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Down the road, so to speak, lay the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These seven “liberal arts,” artes liberales, were of no immediate practical purpose and thus deemed worthy of “free men” – liberal meaning “free.” Parents of incoming college freshmen, take note.

Trivial still means “insignificant.” But trivia, the noun, has acquired a sheen of “specialized knowledge to use to impress peers and win love.” To feminist writer Mary Daly, “trivia” was the crossroads where goddesses met to exchange wisdom.

Nontrivial, meanwhile, has picked up currency to describe things that really do matter. It’s one of those words for ideas whose meanings we get at by describing what they’re not.

Tech Times recently quoted some researchers trying to use crowdsourcing to “teach” their robots. They acknowledged that “the issue of quality control was ‘nontrivial.’ ”

A Bloomberg View article on trust in the bond markets noted that “there is a nontrivial chance that your dealer will sell you a bond ‘worth’ 90 for 98.75.” 

And I ran into nontrivial myself the other day on a visit to one of Boston’s academic campuses. I was shown a Helmholtz cage, used to test satellites. On a white board nearby were some simple notations about which direction was the x-axis, which the y-axis, and which the z-axis. An element of the trivium (writing) was supporting efforts in the quadrivium (astronomy).

When I remarked on these handwritten reminders, my guide commented that getting x, y, and z wrong in space would be a “nontrivial” matter. 

The episode reminded me of a joke I heard as a child: A captain is retiring after many years in command of a particular ship. He tells his successor of some important guidance he’s left for him in an envelope in a particular drawer. 

If you’re ever up against it, the retiring captain says, get the envelope. It may be enough to get you out of trouble.

And so the day comes. When the successor goes for the envelope and opens it, he finds that the note within reads, in its entirety, “Port is left. Starboard is right.”

It was funny, but the joke left me with a larger idea that in most fields, there are a few essentials that, if you stick with them, will keep you on track. And that’s no trivial thing.

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