Trivia (singular: trivium) are unimportant (or "trivial") items, especially of information. In the late 19th century the expression came to apply more to information of the kind useful almost exclusively for answering quiz questions: a perfect "trivia question" is one that initially stumps the listener, but the answer subsequently sounds familiar once revealed (otherwise the question would be considered either too familiar and therefore not trivia, or so unfamiliar and obscure as to be unanswerable and not as entertaining). The study or collection of trivia is known as spermology, which literally means collection of seeds.
The word "trivia" was popularized in its current meaning in the 1960s by Columbia University students Ed Goodgold and Dan Carlinsky, who created the earliest inter-collegiate quiz bowls that tested culturally significant yet ultimately unimportant facts, which they dubbed "trivia contests". The first book treating trivia of this universal sort was Trivia (Dell, 1966) by Goodgold and Carlinsky, which achieved a ranking on the New York Times best seller list; 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?" 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.
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, in the United States, to the re-launch of Jeopardy!, 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. (The U.S. pub quiz scene is crimped by the popularity of Buzztime, a satellite-based game.)
The largest current trivia contest is held in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point's college radio station WWSP 89.9 FM. This is a college station with 11,500 watts of power and about a 65 mile (105 km) radius, and the contest serves as a fund raiser for the 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 39th WWSP contest was held in April 2008.
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 January 2008. Unusually, Williams has a separate contest for each semester, and thus its 84th game took place in May 2008.
The Trivia Bowl was a mostly-student contest featuring a single-elimination tournament based on the GE College Bowl. Many of the best trivia players in America trace participation through this tournament including many Jeopardy! and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? contestants.