Trivial Confusing in New Zealand.

I don’t usually make “kids today” posts, but this Guardian piece by Eleanor Ainge Roy boggles my mind:

New Zealand high school students have demanded examiners ignore that they don’t know what the word “trivial” means, after it appeared in a final-year exam and left many confused.

Some students who took the year 13 history exam claimed the “unfamiliar word” was too hard, and the exam should now be marked according to each student’s different understanding and interpretation of “trivial”.

The exam asked for students to write an essay on whether they agreed with a quote from Julius Caesar which reads: “Events of importance are the result of trivial causes”. […]

Year 13 student Logan Stadnyk who took the exam told local media that at least half of his classmates thought trivial meant “significant”.

Assuming the story is accurately reported, does it mean the word is falling out of use in NZ? Or are these kids just engaging in the time-honored adolescent practice of yanking their elders’ chains? (Thanks, Kobi!)

Comments

  1. They have a room to grow. Next thing you know, they will try to find uncertainty in the meaning of “is” (I am 90% sure they are continuing a time-honored student tradition of making excuses for bad performance out of nothing)

  2. Yeah, that’s certainly plausible.

  3. Stu Clayton says:

    … the exam should now be marked according to each student’s different understanding and interpretation of “trivial”.

    The fruits of “descriptivism” have come home to roost. Everbody ignernt in their own way, so give ’em a break !

    At first glance only, though. Fortunately for the reputation of “descriptivism”, it rejects giving grades.

    I propose the introduction of a double-barreled grading system. On one side every student automatically gets an A for affort in everything. On the other side every student gets a grade that measures his/her performance against standards.

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    find uncertainty in the meaning of “is”

    Philosophers of ontology have done this for thousands of years. If these students read more Parmenides, they would find better arguments.

  5. I doubt that hundreds of students would simultaneously answer an exam question wrong because they wanted to tease their teachers. It’s possible that only a handful answered it wrong and somehow convinced their fellow students to sign a petition like that, but if the vast majority understood the question the petition would hardly be effective.

    There was a TV series called “Nothing Trivial” in New Zealand from 2011-2014, so I doubt the word is particularly rare there. (I know this from Wikipedia, not personal experience.) The most obvious explanation is that the students don’t have very large vocabularies. Probably they have seen the word but never really asked themselves what it means.

  6. Stu Clayton says:

    # According to NZQA 6,300 students were enrolled to sit the exam and the authority had received 13 complaints regarding it.#

  7. anders horn says:

    In 6th grade science class I got a question wrong involving “opaque”. I got the semantic domain right but I inverted the sense; why would people need a word for “not transparent” it’s the default.
    I also thought that “mass” refered to size because I thought that weight referred to mass.

  8. (NZer here — or at least Brit who emigrated, therefore I didn’t go through the NZ school system.)

    Yes the story’s accurately reported. And has prompted a great deal of tut-tutting ‘what have kids of today come to?’ in the letters columns.

    As well as the TV series, every pub has a ‘Trivia Quiz’ on mid-week nights, and you’d think every kid (or at least every kid’s parents) play ‘Trivial Pursuits’). I asked around some Uni students at my local Bar/Cafe, they all knew the word, but were a bit hazy on its meanng.

    Here’s a question, though, for everybody: at what age did you get to know “trivial” and its meaning? I plain can’t remember/it’s one of those words I feel I’ve always known — certainly before I was age 18.

    While I’m here: that quote from Caesar is about the beauty of Cleopatra’s nose and how it captivated two leaders of the Roman Empire(?) Oh, except it must’ve captivated Antony after Caesar was Brutally murdered(?)

    I wouldn’t expect 18-year-olds to know that much Shakespeare, or that much Classical history: NZ education is more oriented toward us being part of Asia-Pacific/the Romans never got this far South.

  9. Colonists from Roman province of Britannia definitely got there

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    It probably isn’t immediately obvious what the “trivial” in “Trivial Pursuit” actually means, unless you know already, especially given the fact that the name is vaguely ironic. In fact, the popularity of the game might even have helped to obscure the original meaning of the phrase.

    How will these poor children ever cope with the Quadrivium? These are dark times.

  11. Heh. It reminds me of a satirical story I read in Mongolian recently, dating back to the initial period of democracy after the fall of socialism. The gist of the story, as told by the teacher is:

    There was one student who was hopeless at arithmetic and could barely count. Under socialism the teacher wanted to give the student a “0”, but the school administrator refused as it would discourage students.

    Come democratisation, the teacher felt free to mark the student as s/he saw fit because the administrator had been repurposed as a “coordinator”. In an arithmetic test, the student gave “7” as the answer to “What is 2+2?”. The teacher gave him a “0”.

    The student’s father, formerly a black marketeer, now a “businessman”, protested that all points of view should be respected in the new era of pluralism. “2+2=7” was perfectly acceptable.

    The teacher dug his/her heels in and refused to revise the mark because it went against science. The father claimed that insisting on “2+2=4” oppressed pluralism and formed a committee of concerned parents to fight this.

    Eventually a round-table meeting convened by the coordinator decided that 5, 6, and 7 should all be recognised as valid answers to “2+2”.

  12. squiffy-marie von bladet says:

    I still remember a guy sitting on the couch, thinking very hard, and another guy standing in front of him, saying, “And therefore such-and-such is true.”

    “Why is that?” the guy on the couch asks.

    “It’s trivial! It’s trivial!” the standing guy says, and he rapidly reels off a series of logical steps: “First you assume thus-and-so, then we have Kerchoff’s this-and-that; then there’s Waffenstoffer’s Theorem, and we substitute this and construct that. Now you put the vector which goes around here and then thus-and-so …” The guy on the couch is struggling to understand all this stuff, which goes on at high speed for about fifteen minutes!

    Finally the standing guy comes out the other end, and the guy on the couch says, “Yeah, yeah. It’s trivial.”

    We physicists were laughing, trying to figure them out. We decided that “trivial” means “proved.” So we joked with the mathematicians: “We have a new theorem—that mathematicians can prove only trivial theorems, because every theorem that’s proved is trivial.”

  13. are these kids just engaging in the time-honored adolescent practice of yanking their elders’ chains?

    As my previous comment suggests, I tend to regard this as pointing to a strong sense of “entitlement”.

    “How dare you ask us about things we don’t know about! You stuck up bastards and your big words! Your test should make allowance for ordinary people; we aren’t hoity-toity intellectuals! This is a democracy and if we consider that we shouldn’t have to know what ‘trivial’ means then we shouldn’t be expected to!”

  14. A larger failure of their education system is that they lacked the skills or confidence to guess the word’s meaning from context.

    What possible other debate-worthy meaning could the missing word have, in a sentence of the form “Big things spring from _____ causes”? How hard is that to figure out?

    Their teachers failed these kids, not by not teaching them that particular word, but by not giving them the skills or confidence in their language ability to solve this trivial puzzle.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Or are these kids just engaging in the time-honored adolescent practice of yanking their elders’ chains?

    In the thirteenth year of school?

    But then, if there are just 13 complaints out of 6300…

    It probably isn’t immediately obvious what the “trivial” in “Trivial Pursuit” actually means, unless you know already, especially given the fact that the name is vaguely ironic. In fact, the popularity of the game might even have helped to obscure the original meaning of the phrase.

    This kind of thing seems to happen a lot, actually.

    Like with opaque: lots of people believe it means “translucent”.

    Lots of people also believe thou is/was extremely formal…

    Caesar was Brutally murdered

    Ouch.

    Their teachers failed these kids, not by not teaching them that particular word, but by not giving them the skills or confidence in their language ability to solve this trivial puzzle.

    I think we have a winner.

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    G H Hardy is supposed to have been pulled up by an unusually brave undergraduate during a lecture after he remarked of some proof that it was “obvious.”

    The story is that Hardy paced up and down for five minutes in intense silent thought, and then remarked :”It is obvious” and continued as before.

    It is probably significant that Hardy (quite apart from being Hardy) was professor at Cambridge. It’s that sort of place …

  17. Stu Clayton says:

    Everything is obvious once the obstacles to understanding have been obviated.

  18. Their teachers failed these kids, not by not teaching them that particular word, but by not giving them the skills or confidence in their language ability to solve this trivial puzzle.

    Excellent point.

  19. Hah, I’ve seen the 2+2 story but it came to me in Russian as a forwarded email from my father. It was clearly used as a screed against postmodern permissive multiculturalism or whatever the conservatives in the US are calling what they are railing against now. The twist was that the heroic old teacher used this ‘new’ math to get a much higher severance.

  20. Bathrobe’s excellent story is the reverse of the Russian classic from the times of the communist rule (I want to seize the occasion to express my great satisfaction in the stay of knowledge of kids today. Every time a new poll in Russia comes out showing how small is the number of children who know who Lenin even was, my heart sings)
    A very important official: “In previous years we were told that 2+2 equals 8, but now new ideas replace the old ones and our party firmly states that it is 7 and some think even 6”
    Question from the audience: “Maybe we should say that it is 5?”
    Official: “No. Too close to 4”

  21. Writing exam questions is a skill. One of the advantages is having national exam setting bodies is that a small group of full-time professionals can acquire a deep expertise in how to avoid ambiguities or reliance on cultural knowledge extraneous to the subject under examination.

    I remember my school history book mentioning that the Junkers were “the landed class”, and to the exam question “who were the Junkers?” I answered “the Prussian peasantry”, because I had misunderstood the word “landed”.

  22. The 2+2 business must have something to do with the mid-19th-century Russian use of “2 + 2 = 4” as the go-to example for obvious/official truth (as in Chernyshevsky and Dostoevsky).

  23. Even more so is “two times two” (Russian has a fascinating way of expressing multiplication as a suffix “-zhdy” for the first multiplier 2, 3, or 4 and “-ju” for 5 through 9. No idea how it came about. If I have more time today, I will look it up and report back). Turgenev is a big name in the game. Pigasov from “Rudin” says that a man can say that two times two is not four, but five or three and a half, but a woman would say that two times two is a stearin candle.

  24. John Cowan says:

    My favorite mathematician-at-the-blackboard story (though perhaps all such stories are essentially isomorphic):

    “There is a beautiful result that bears on this. Let me show you.”

    Professor thinks for a while, writes an equation and “Q.E.D.” after it.

    Student raises a hand: “I don’t understand how you got there.”

    Professor smiles, says “Let me do it by another method.” He thinks for a longer time, writes down the same equation and again “Q.E.D.” after it.

  25. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I have always wondered if the inventors of Trivial Pursuit knew what “trivial” meant. They did a lot of damage.

  26. John Cowan’s story reminds me an anecdote about Boltzmann. I am writing from memory, the story is too good to check. When lecturing, Boltzmann had a habit to do all mathematical derivations orally (this probably is not as stunning feat as it sounds if, following the European tradition, Boltzmann read from the prepared notes). Students complained and he promised to write the equations on the blackboard. Next lecture, Boltzmann proceeded in his usual manner of speaking equations aloud, but after reaching the final expression remembered his promise and wrote it on the board.

  27. January First-of-May says:

    I have always wondered if the inventors of Trivial Pursuit knew what “trivial” meant.

    I assume they thought “trivial” meant “relating to trivia” – which it kind of does [Wiktionary sense 3, “concerned with or involving trivia”], it’s just not the main meaning of that word.

    [EDIT: I wonder if 27 comments on the same post in a row was the longest such chain in LH history so far…]

  28. A few years ago, high school students in Croatia claimed a question on the national standardized exam should be ignored in grading because it was unreasonable to expect high school graduates to know what the word rubin means. It was a ridiculous demand, and so is this one, but I can’t really blame the students for trying. These types of exams can be very stressful and can have a significant impact on their future. They might as well give it a shot and hope for the best. Ako prođe, prođe, as the popular Balkan saying goes.

  29. I wonder if 27 comments on the same post in a row was the longest such chain in LH history so far…

    Fun fact: not even close. ‘How to Make a Linguistic Theory’ has ten times as many, and I doubt it’s finished.

    they thought “trivial” meant “relating to trivia”

    The number of golf balls on the moon is trivia. But pub ‘Trivia Quizzes’ ask about (say) winners of the Rugby World Cup — which is a matter of life and death “Ka mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!”.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    Writing exam questions is a skill.

    Oh yes. At all stages of education, I encountered a number of teachers who lacked it.

  31. Even more so is “two times two”

    Oh yeah, I thought something was off even as I was posting that comment. Of course it was two times two.

  32. not even close

    January First-of-May was talking about posts in a row, not the cumulative number of posts. I think the record for that was something like 900 posts that dealt, if I remember rightly, with the translation of poetry.

  33. Oh, there was at least one post with a couple thousand comments. But yeah, January First-of-May was talking about consecutive comments, with no haring off into other threads.

  34. I remember my school history book mentioning that the Junkers were “the landed class”, and to the exam question “who were the Junkers?” I answered “the Prussian peasantry”, because I had misunderstood the word “landed”.

    The correct answer should be “aircraft”, of course. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junkers
    The clue in the book makes it obvious: what other class of objects has in common the fact that they have all landed? (One could equally have described them as “the taken-off class”. But an aircraft is more likely to have landed than to have taken off. After all, as any traveller knows, take-offs get cancelled all the time; landings almost never).

  35. What possible other debate-worthy meaning could the missing word have, in a sentence of the form “Big things spring from _____ causes”? How hard is that to figure out?

    In context, it could mean “significant” – the phrase would then imply “big things only spring from significant causes”. That’s debate-worthy.

  36. There was a Soviet quiz show pretty similar to Trivial Pursuit, but with somewhat more intellectual questions.

    Players lost one question and vehemently protested that it was unfairly difficult – ’cause they had to know Tajik to figure out the correct answer!

  37. Obviously, “trivial” is not such a useful word when it comes to killing monsters in video games, a crucial activity youths all over the world excel at.

  38. I have the impression that in US (N. American?) usage “trivia” mainly refers to what I’d call “general knowledge quiz questions”, the subjects of which needn’t be trivial at all. Whereas I think on this side of the pond “trivia” means something like “unimportant facts” with no particular allusion to quizzes. Do I have that right?

    Merriam Webster has (after the first sense, “unimportant matters”) “also singular in construction: a quizzing game involving obscure facts” (which would be narrower than “general knowledge”) and OED says “[In allusion to the quiz game Trivia.] Useless information or (knowledge of) matters of little importance. Frequently attributive, as trivia game, trivia question, etc. Chiefly U.S.”.

    I don’t know “the quiz game Trivia” and neither does Wikipedia, but here’s the first (1968) quote: “Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 27 June 2/4 A game called trivia, so called because it’s trivial… The trivia game is sweeping the world. A kind of quiz or exchange of useless information.”

  39. January First-of-May says:

    and neither does Wikipedia

    There’s no separate article for the game, but there are several paragraphs about it in the main “Trivia” article. Apparently it goes back to at least 1965.

  40. The students could try complaining that they thought trivia was the plural of trivium, “a group of studies consisting of grammar, rhetoric, and logic and forming the lower division of the seven liberal arts in medieval universities”. (The upper division is the quadrivium.)

    There’s also a heavy metal band called Trivium, but there’s only one of them, so you wouldn’t need a plural form.

  41. The Terrible Trivium from The Phantom Tollbooth is one of the demons in the Mountains of Ignorance. It delays people by sticking them with trivial tasks.

  42. I don’t know the quiz game “Trivia” …

    Have you been living under a rock? Have you never gone to a pub on a Tuesday night? That would explain your impression about US usage vs “this side of the pond” — presumably the Atlantic, not Pacific(?)

    I now live this side of the Pacific, but up to ~20 years ago lived that side of the Atlantic.

    Do I have that right?

    I’d say no. ‘Trivia’ in the UK (and in NZ) has just as much the quiz sense as the unimportant matters sense. (Not that those senses need be distinct.)

  43. David Marjanović says:

    Have you never gone to a pub on a Tuesday night?

    …That’s not some kind of cultural universal, you know. 🙂

  44. Under a rock indeed! I seem to have neglected to mention that my team is the current holder of my daughter’s school’s Annual Fund-Raising Table Quiz trophy; perhaps you had already heard. But a “table quiz” is what it is, as always in Ireland. Are these Tuesday night pub events called “trivia nights” or something? I thought it was a “pub quiz” in the UK.

    And the OED clearly isn’t referring to quizzes in general but to a specific game, which, no, I hadn’t heard of, but January’s helpful pointer to Wikipedia clarifies:

    In the 1960s, nostalgic college students and others began to informally trade questions and answers about the popular culture of their youth. The first known documented labeling of this casual parlor game as “Trivia” was in a Columbia Daily Spectator column published on February 5, 1965.[9] The author, Ed Goodgold (né Edwin F. Goodgold; born 1944), then started the first organized “trivia contests” with the help of Dan Carlinsky. Ed and Dan wrote the book Trivia (Dell, 1966)…

    Assuming that’s correct, I guess that’s how “trivia” got its association with quiz games.

  45. Terry Collmann says:

    Surely everybody knows that “trivial” refers to a collision at a Y-shaped road junction?

  46. More from your correspondent on the front line of NZ yoof.

    I was ordering a savoury flan. Met with blank stares, I pointed at the cabinet. Oh you mean quiche. I’ve never heard it called “flan”. [Had I been quick enough on the draw, I could have quoted the first few words of the wikipedia entry on quiche. Moving on …] But quiche is a French word. Is it? (more stares, this time incredulous) [yeah, yeah, “flan” is also French.]

    So I took the opportunity to ask about “trivial”. Oh you mean like in ‘Trivial Pursuits’? Non-commital responses as to the meaning of the word outside the game.

    No it can’t mean ‘unimportant’: the quiz questions might ask about important things. So there you have it.

    I stopped myself before suggesting it means ‘trifles’. Enough culinary adventures for one day. (Also French. ‘Tart’, ‘pastry’ also from French. Are there no honest-to-goodness Anglo-Saxon food terms?)

  47. January First-of-May says:

    Are there no honest-to-goodness Anglo-Saxon food terms?

    Well, “cake” is at least Germanic and not from French (though still not quite Anglo-Saxon).

    I had high hopes for “scone”, which sounds Anglo-Saxon, but it also appears to be of uncertain (though probably non-French) loan origin.

  48. Actually, if you define the operator correctly 2 + 2 really does equal 7, especially if you were working in ring theory, for example. So the correct approach given this answer to a simple question is to ask the person to flesh out his operator definitions to your satisfaction.

  49. January First-of-May says:

    So the correct approach given this answer to a simple question is to ask the person to flesh out his operator definitions to your satisfaction.

    And his number definitions, for that matter. Are you sure that what he calls 7 is equivalent to what you call 7?

  50. Well, bread and milk are of “Anglo-Saxon” origin (and of course Wiki has a list of words remaining from Old English from which anyone can pick up the food items). I guess AntC’s was a cry of frustration, not a real question though…

    And, I guess, it can be said that so called “7” is the first part of 7/11 with independent meaning uncertain. As for 2, I guess, we may conclude that two times two is a stearin candle especially if we also modify the meaning of “is”. Lewis Carroll already had fun with stuff like this 150 years ago. Some things never become old… Next, fart jokes.

  51. David Marjanović says:

    I was ordering a savoury flan.

    o_O

  52. I had no idea flan meant something different in UK English.

  53. Trond Engen says:

    At least quiche is Germanic, from a form similar to Küche.

  54. Danish is Germanic.

    & @January First-of-May: Every number system is “base 10.”

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