Trivium and Quadrivium

My brother, Ivan, brought to my attention the origins of the word trivial.

In medieval times, the trivium was an introductory university course, focused on the study of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The etymology of trivium is Latin: tri- (‘three’) plus –via(‘way’), i.e. ‘meeting of three roads’. This introductory course was pretty basic, compared to the quadrivium (quadri- plus –via, i.e. ‘meeting of four roads’), which involved the study of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The modern definition of the adjective trivial is ‘of little value or importance’.

I’d never identified the tri- in trivial as a prefix denoting ‘three’, and this set me thinking about other words that begin with tri-, but which don’t have an obvious link to the number three. Before long, I was chasing all over the internet after the etymology of tribe.

Every citizen of ancient Rome belonged to a tribe, or tribus – a voting unit of a legislative assembly of the Roman Republic (509 to 27 BC). There’s a popular theory that at the dawn of Rome’s history (circa 750 BC), three original Roman tribes were established by Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome, and that each tribe represented one of Rome’s original ethnic groups – the Latins, the Sabines, and the Etruscans. This ties in nicely with the tri- in tribe, and my Oxford Dictionary of English supports this connection.

However, tribus could well derive from the verb tribuere. My pocket Collins Latin Dictionary defines this verb as ‘to bestow’ or ‘to divide’.


So, why was I researching the word tribe in the first place? Well, I made a guess, based on preconceived ideas, about a particular element of the word. This is how folk etymology plays a part in language evolution.

Folk etymology, also known as pseudo-etymology or popular etymology, comes about through re-bracketing – a process that breaks down words into elements that are familiar, or which fit preconceived ideas. In the process of re-bracketing, new words will appear, constructed with linguistic building blocks that have been forged from broken-down words. This is called back-formation.

A hamburger is a dish originating in Hamburg, Germany; the –er part of the word denotes that the food is of Hamburg. The word hamburger, therefore, was originally constructed from the elements Hamburg- plus –er. However, by re-bracketing, hamburger has been chopped up and reconstructed from two quite different elements: ham- plus –burger. The ham- element, which never really played any part in this dish, can be replaced by beef, pork, turkey, chicken, veggie, and so on. And burger is a new word, first used in the US in the 1930s.

A chocoholic is someone who constantly craves chocolate; a shopaholic spends money compulsively; and a workaholic just can’t stop working. These words are all derived from alcoholic, which contains the elements alcohol- and –ic. The word alcoholic has been re-bracketed into alco- plus –holic, and the newly constructed element, –holic, is now freely used as a suffix denoting an extreme liking or addiction.

The verb to liaise is a relatively young word, coined as military slang in the 1920s. Liaise is a back-formation from liaison, a word that dates back to the mid-1600s, first used as a cookery term for the thickening of sauces etc. To burgle, first used in the late 1800s, was a humorous back-formation from burglar, a word that has been in use since the 1500s.

I’m now feeling nicely gruntled.

Yes, it’s in the dictionary! A humorous back-formation from disgruntled, first used in the 1930s.