The seven liberal arts were divided into trivium and quadrivium. The easier half, trivium, gives rise to the adjective trivialis, which has connotations of simplicity and vulgarity. The adjective quadrivialis serves — in addition to referring to quadrivium — as an antonym to trivialis (or so I understood). The Latin word quadrivialis seems very rare, and so does the English counterpart "quadrivial".

When were these two adjectives, trivialis and quadrivialis introduced to Latin? Were they always opposite to each other (one meaning simple and the other meaning advanced), or did this contrast develop later? Was there a different established antonym for trivialis if quadrivialis was much rarer than trivialis? I would like to see these two adjectives and their histories compared. If a full account is available but too long to share here, I would much appreciate an outline and a link to further reading.

Searching for quadrivialis does produce some hits, but I was unable to track any discussion to reliable or more complete sources.

1 Answer 1


I believe the cursory etymology you stated is inaccurate. Here is what my research shows:

Medieval Latin meaning of trivium / trivialis

In the Middle Ages, the liberal arts were divided into the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy), but this was hardly a relationship of easy and difficult.

The quadrivium ("four ways") was first coined by Boethius in the 6th century. trivium as a term for the other three liberal arts was later coined in imitation of this term during the Carolingian Renaissance. In this sense, they refer to the "three/four ways of knowledge."

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the first use of English trivial is in the early 15th century to mean "of the first three liberal arts," corresponding to the Medieval Latin trivialis which had the same meeting. At this point, it had no dismissive undertones.

Post-Augustinian meaning of trivium / trivialis

The current meaning of trivial ("straightforward, unimportant") comes from the (post-Augustinian, but certainly not medieval) Latin word trivialis, which Lewis & Short translates as "that may be found everywhere, common, commonplace, vulgar, ordinary, trivial." This in turn is an adjective coming from trivium, "a place where three roads meet" (tres + via) and, by extension, "a public square, the public street, highway."

The Online Etymological Dictionary (op. cit.) indicates that this prior meaning is the origin of the current meaning of trivial, not the later Medieval Latin coining to refer to the three humane liberal arts.

We thus have a case of two separate derived meanings coming from the same word, trivium, which literally means "the meeting of three ways."

This is the explanation for why quadrivial is not a common word in English and certainly is not an antonym of trivial: quadrivial is an adjective referring to the quadrivium or, literally, referring to the meeting of four ways, but there is no non-Medieval Latin word quadrivialis which had an extended meaning like trivialis.

  • @JoonasIlmavirta Thanks! I added a little section at the end concerning quadrivial, since I forgot to address that.
    – brianpck
    Apr 26, 2016 at 15:58

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