Daily Archives: November 23, 2011


Write this word out longhand. Bit of a nuisance, isn’t it? (Especially if, like me, you make your n’s and m’s generally with points rather than bumps, so they look like sets of i’s without dots.) Along with all those up-and-down letters, you have to cross the t and dot all four of the i’s – make sure every jot and tittle (iota and titulus) is as it must be. If you do this a lot, you’re probably a four-i’s too. And the word starts at the beginning – a – and the consonants go, with one exception, in alphabetical order, but at the end you’re back at a where you started! What’s more, just as its referent keeps you on your toes and fingertips, this word stays at the tip of your tongue or slips forward to your lips.

Alas, administrivia! Surely there must be some third way, between utter chaos and this amazing round of endless paperwork designed to satisfy government or ISO standards. It can be a frustrating struggle – and so often things that should be separate end up being joined on, like the s on adminis ganging up with the tr on trivia for strength to strike and strangle you with constraints. And many strive to find a way to somehow get the paperwork to go away or go more easily, but there’s bad luck awaiting – administrivia’s half-dozen syllables bring 13 letters, and many more forms and emails than that. Your many ministrations must make use of all the grammar, rhetoric, and logic you can muster. Not to mention time and patience.

Administrivia is made, obviously, from administration and trivia, and the sense of the blend is pretty apparent. But just as you accept the various formalities of administration without necessarily knowing where they all came from, you can accept and use this word (as with pretty much any other word) without knowing where its bits came from. But isn’t etymology trivial anyway? Well, not in the mathematical sense – you can’t simply deduce the source of a word from present information – but it may make use of grammar and logic, and perhaps even rhetoric.

I’ll explain. The seven liberal arts, as defined in the Middle Ages, comprised four higher arts – the quadrivium (four ways), arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music – and three lower arts – the trivium (three ways), grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Things less exalted and more commonplace came to be called trivial, and the sense shifted to the insignificant and insubstantial thereafter. The word trivia is actually a modern addition to English – about a century ago – as a plural of trivium to refer to those inconsequential little things, the knick-knacks of the mind.

And the staples of administration. Which comes from ad “to” and ministrare “serve, provide, manage, control”. It is, or is supposed to be, what government ministers (a term not in use in the US) do. But the British TV series Yes, Minister reminds us that ministers, like many others, often leave the administrivia to their assistants.

Thanks to Jim Taylor for suggesting today’s word.