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The New Oxford American Dictionary gives the meaning of "trivial" as:

  • of little value or importance (synonyms: unimportant, insignificant, inconsequential, minor)

Can this word be used to denote something, which is not of little value, but is still easy?

For example

  • "This is a very trivial process" - denoting a process which is very easy, but not necessarily unimportant.

EDIT (14-Feb-2024): as a more specific example:

  • Washing our hands correctly can be considered very easy[1], but it's definitely important to do so. Would it be correct to say "It's trivial to wash your hands correctly"

[1] Assuming an able bodied person

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    Might be worth noting that in mathematics, 'trivial' is used to refer to a very obvious or simple statement. For example, for the problem find a factor of N, 1 and N are trivial solutions.
    – user252723
    Sep 19, 2017 at 7:29
  • I assume that's the pocket Oxford. Try merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trivial
    – Stuart F
    Jan 6 at 11:07
  • Cambridge Dictionary on the other hand has << trivial [2] A trivial problem is easy to solve: • Getting computers to understand human language is not a trivial problem. I'm sure OED is even more comprehensive. // However, this is not the default sense in everyday situations; 'This is a very trivial process' is confusing at best. 'He made some trivial comments' should not be used to convey 'easy [to understand]'. Jan 6 at 12:52
  • Ask here for the meaning in general English usage. (Not for the meaning in mathematics or other specialized situations.)
    – GEdgar
    Jan 8 at 18:24
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    @GEdgar, the distinction cannot really be drawn in this case, because the mathematics-based sense of this word tends to percolate into the everyday speech of the people educated in mathematics-based fields - see, foe example, the last quotation in DjinTonic's answer.
    – jsw29
    Jan 8 at 21:51

5 Answers 5

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In science:

In the field of mathematics, (and in sciences in general, for that matter,) the word "trivial" does in fact mean "simple" or "easy".

In scientific/engineering papers you often find statements like "can be trivially shown" or "can be trivially accomplished" and even terms like "trivial proof", "trivial solution", "trivial process", etc. In all these cases, the term refers to something so simple or easy that it is barely worth explaining how or why.

In general use:

Most dictionaries do not mention any "trivial" or "simple" meanings for the word "easy", while some that do mention them state that they belong to the field of mathematics.

For example, the Wikipedia article for "Triviality (Mathematics)" states:

In mathematics, the adjective trivial is often used to refer to a claim or a case which can be readily obtained from context, or an object which possesses a simple structure (e.g., groups, topological spaces).

The Cambridge Dictionary (CD) might be an exception, because in the CD entry for "trivial" it does mention "A trivial problem is easy to solve" and gives an example: "Getting computers to understand human language is not a trivial problem."

(By the way, since when did dictionaries start including entries that constitute examples instead of definitions? Is explanation by example an acceptable practice for a dictionary now? I am rather shocked by this CD entry.)

Now, every dictionary publisher has a decision to make: to include or not to include specialized jargon in their dictionary. However, every dictionary publisher must keep an eye on how language evolves, and to keep updating their dictionary when jargon makes it into general use.

It has long been my understanding, (and several people commenting below seem to agree,) that in the western world, and in the past few decades, the "simple" or "easy" meanings of "trivial" have made it into general use.

Perhaps it is a result of an ever-increasing portion of the population becoming scientifically literate, perhaps it is geek culture becoming mainstream; whatever it is, I think that most people (bar simpletons) would readily understand the meaning "simple" or "easy" for the word "trivial".

Thus, it can be argued that dictionaries should follow CD's example and include the "simple" and "easy" meanings for the word "trivial".

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    CD certainly lists the sense (though implies a maths domain usage). Jan 6 at 12:48
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    It should be emphasised that this use of trivial is not just a part of some highly specialised jargon; the word is used this way in a wide range of contexts by people whose education was mathematics-infused.
    – jsw29
    Jan 7 at 16:40
  • I'm aware of the mathematical usage, I was wondering about the general usage
    – BX21
    Feb 14 at 5:56
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    @BX21 without wanting to put words into jsw29's mouth, my interpretation of their comment fits with my own impression: when enough people in a group have a mathematical education, the mathematical sense extends into general usage. My field is physics, and has been engineering, but I've noticed it out of work too - many of my friends also work in technical areas so the idea of a trivial problem is well understood in (for example) my bike club.
    – Chris H
    Feb 15 at 12:25
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    The observation, in the new version of the answer, that 'in all these cases, the term refers to something so simple or easy that it is barely worth explaining how or why' is particularly important, because it brings out the connection between this sense of trivial (simple/easy) and the sense that dominates its dictionary definitions ('of little value or importance'). If the proof of a theorem is simple/easy, then it is 'of little value or importance' to spell it out (even though it may be important in itself).
    – jsw29
    Feb 19 at 18:53
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Picking up on Edwin's comment above based on:

A trivial problem is easy to solve:

Getting computers to understand human language is not a trivial problem.
Cambridge

I think there can be overlap and trivial can have at least the connotation of easy, if not the denotation. Why do we find so many instances of "trivial but not easy" in Google Books unless it's to negate this connotation?


In support of trivial sometimes implying easy, I found the following:

The "ordinary, commonplace" meaning of trivial, often also connotes "easy." "It is trivial for a Ph.D. in math to add two numbers in her head."
Margaret A. Richek; The World of Words: Vocabulary for College Students (2004) [Snippet]

Could this style of barrier theorem be trivial? "Trivial" isn't a very precise criticism—sometimes it just means easy, or boring, or weak—but we can identify some specific worries that could be characterised that way.
Gillian Russell; Barriers to Entailment (2023)

Note: "Trivial" does not necessarily imply "easy"!
David Ullrich; Complex Made Simple (2008)

The next day, the New York Daily News ran the headline "A nightmare in Space!," and Life magazine ran stories about the mission in its next two issues, on of them under the title "Wild Spin in a Sky Gone Berserk." Neither Armstrong nor Scott appreciated the melodramatic approach, regardless of its accuracy. Armstrong downplayed the danger, as was his habit; a few years later, he would use the math/physics/engineering term trivial, meaning "easy to work out," to describe the crisis: "It was a non-trivial situation," he said.
James Donovan; Shoot for the Moon (2019)

"Trivial?" asked the doctor, frowning and puzzled by the use of that word.
"I'm sorry. That's math jargon for obvious," explained Maria. "When the proof of a theorem is easy and evident, we say it's trivial, meaning we should have been able to figure out the proof in seconds."
"As, yes," continued the doctor, "but there are other areas here about which there is nothing trivial. It has taken us years to discover their secrets. ..."
E.L. Alban; Dialogues of the Sleeping Mind (2011)

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  • While it is indeed important to say that this sense of trivial is related to its core sense, captured by its dictionary definitions, and while the quoted paragraphs help to elucidate the matter, they are not examples of something 'trivial but not easy'. The last two clearly say that they are about something that turned out not to be trivial.
    – jsw29
    Jan 8 at 15:49
  • @jsw29 Correct--I did not intend them as such. The things described in the last two examples turned out to be neither easy nor of little importance. I've made an edit.
    – DjinTonic
    Jan 8 at 16:18
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trivial can mean "not at all complicated" and thus by extension is understood to mean "requiring very little effort, easy to do".

It's held on by a single 10mm hex-head bolt that is not difficult to reach. The repair is trivial.

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I often use "trivial" to mean "evident, obvious", which is what you're asking about (if I understand you correctly).

However, I've noticed that while this is valid in Dutch (my native language) it is not valid in English. In English, "trivial" only means "of little importance":

  1. Of little value or importance.
    ‘huge fines were imposed for trivial offences’
    ‘trivial details’

    1.1 (of a person) concerned only with petty things.


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  • I once heard someone express concern about learning a particular computer program (e.g., Excel); a native English-speaking Nobel Laureate replied "That's trivial." So, in his view, learning it was a trivial matter.
    – Xanne
    Sep 19, 2017 at 8:10
  • @Xanne: It's all connected. If using the application is "self-evident" (OP's suggestion for trivial), then taking lessons on how to use the application are "pointless" (the OED definition of trivial). The two meanings overlap, but they focus on different things. The OED definition is closer to saying "[this thing] is pointless", but the non-OED meaning is closer to saying "any further explanation about [this thing] is pointless". Similar, but not the same.
    – Flater
    Sep 19, 2017 at 8:15
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    Get a better dictionary.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 6 at 11:08
  • Yes; unless one has looked in (or fully knows) OED, '[word] means only ...' is dodgy. As here. Jan 6 at 12:42
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The Oxford Dictionaries is always right, well, at least most of the times. Trivial is not the same as easy. It means unimportant or insignificant.

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  • Different dictionaries produced by 'Oxford' (Oxford Languages) will give different information (in degree, at least). See oup.com/dictionaries. Jan 6 at 12:45

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