Is ‘trivial’ trivial?

On a national exam for year 13 students in New Zealand (which is the equivalent of high school seniors in the US) students were asked to write an essay based on this Julius Caesar quote “In war, events of importance are the result of trivial causes.” Some students were upset because they did not know the meaning of the word ‘trivial’ and felt that it was too hard a word to be used on such tests and have signed a petition in protest.

The practice in such exams in New Zealand is to provide students with a glossary for words that are deemed to be difficult but examiners felt that ‘trivial’ was not a word that required any further explication. In response to the petition, they have however issued the following statement: “If candidates have addressed the quote and integrated their ideas with it, then they will be given credit for the strength of their argument and analysis and will not be penalised for misinterpreting the word ‘trivial’.”

That seems like a reasonable response. Since this was not a quiz on word meanings but the purpose of the essay was to assess the ability of a student to make a analytical arguments, the fact that they used an incorrect meaning of the word should not count against them. But I am still surprised that the word ‘trivial’ seemed unfamiliar to so many in a country where English is the primary language.

Words are tricky things. What words one is familiar with depend on the environment one is exposed to. Oddly enough, I think I encountered the word most often in math and science classes, where very often proofs would end at some point with the phrase “and the rest of the proof is trivial”.


  1. says

    I guess those manky old boxes of Trivial Pursuit games hidden at the back of Grandpa’s wardrobe haven’t migrated onto smart phones.

  2. jrkrideau says

    I have a problem with the NZ educational system if you can get to Year 13 without understanding what trivial means. I thought most New Zealanders were native English speakers.

    A friend of mine had a nasty experience in an exam because she did not understand the word “gap” but she was from Chile. The university subsequently agreed she could take a Spanish-English dictionary to exams.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    I’m just sad that NZ doesn’t use the terms “Lower Sixth Form” and “Upper Sixth Form” for years 12 and 13.

  4. fentex says

    Speaking as a New Zealander I think most of the country is unimpressed with the students petitioning against the question.

    If eighteen year old kids are so disinterested in reading that ‘trivial’ is a word that surprises them, they can’t expect to do well in exams and really haven’t a right to complain about their own ignorance is, I expect, the general attitude.

  5. EigenSprocketUK says

    I too was surprised. Then I realised that, like a lot of the simplest words, I couldn’t immediately come up with a simple and accurate definition. The common usage of trivia (like Trivial Pursuits) seems a little different to trivial (as in seemingly inconsequential), and the maths usage is different again.
    Ironically we are discussing a small but vocal set of NZ students upset about an exam: how trivial!

  6. says

    There seems to be only one person here from NZ, so I have to wonder this: is it possible that a word in common use in one part of the world might be rare in another location, even though both locations feature English as the obviously dominant language?

    The answer, of course, is, “Of course!”

    I’m not even sure how to spell “lorry” (could it be “lorrie”?), but I am certainly aware of its use to describe certain types of road vehicles. In British Columbia you meet some families where its use is more common, but on the whole it’s not very common at all. In Ontario, the use of that word is apparently much more common (though I’ve spent little time there), including in Windsor, Ontario, just a tunnel away from Michigan, USA. In Michigan it is almost as if the word doesn’t exist: to the extent that people know it at all, they would generally (I believe) think it a Britishism -- certainly I did while living in Michigan.

    So while I’m willing to go with NZ media sources or academic experts (assuming that there are some) who criticize NZ students as having unduly limited vocabularies if they are unfamiliar with trivial, I’m not at all confident that people outside NZ should be assuming that the use of any particular word is, in another country, as common and easily understood as it is in their own country, even when official or dominant languages are the same.

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