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”.