Foreword by Ken Jennings,
$2.5 million Jeopardy! champion
While writing my own book about trivia not long ago, I had more than one buff tell me that the study is trivia is technically known as spermology.
You heard me. Spermology.
There are good reasons to disavow the word “spermology” for trivia, most of them social. (Try it out. “Honey, the Andersons are coming over this weekend for some fondue and spermology.” “That bar has really good spermology on Tuesday nights!”) But there is, if you’ll pardon the phrase, a seed of truth to the claim. Old dictionaries do indeed avow that “spermologer” used to mean “a picker-up of trivia.” But these dictionaries are using a pre-1965 definition of “trivia.” “Trivia” here means “random snippets of news,” not “general-knowledge factoids.” So a 19th-century spermologer was more gossip-monger than factual omnivore.
The etymology of the word is obvious: Greek, for the study of sperma, seeds. And in that sense, I think it works. What are “trivial” facts but seeds, tiny discrete germs of knowledge, which we scatter among willing listeners for the same reason that gardeners plant flowers: the moment of giddy joy their beauty produces? And just like seeds, trivia factoids carefully sown can grow into tall trees of knowledge—by sparking our curiosity, by turning us on to new realms of interest, by making learning seem fun.
I grew up solving Stanley Newman’s crossword puzzles and trivia quizzes in Games magazine, but I didn’t meet him in person until 2006, at the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, then held in Stamford, Connecticut. I’d been asked to run a little trivia event for the five hundred crossword solvers attending the event, so I threw together a forty-question quiz from books I had on hand and trivia I had off the top of my head.
After the quiz, Stan introduced himself to me. I think he was a little bemused at how star-struck I was to meet him. Sure, I was the Jeopardy! nerd from TV, idol of elderly shut-ins coast to coast, but this was Stan freakin’ Newman!
Stan gave me his autograph, but he also wanted to talk shop. “So I was wondering…that question from your quiz about Admiral Byrd. Did that come from my book?”
I blushed and stammered that, yes, the only reason I’d known that particular factoid about Admiral Byrd (that he was the only person ever to be thrice-honored with a New York City ticker-tape parade) was because I’d seen it in one of Stan’s books, which I’d tracked down the previous year to bone up for Jeopardy! In fact, that book was 10,000 Answers, the now-slightly-undernourished-looking first edition of the book you currently hold in your hands.
Instead of threatening me with legal action or pistols at dawn, Stan just beamed. “I thought so,” he said, with evident professional pride. “As far as I know, my book is the only place that fact’s ever appeared.”
You see, to gurus like Stan and his co-author Hal Fittipaldi, not all factual seeds produce the same fruit. There’s trivia and then there’s trivia—the good stuff, the novel, the exotic. Every buff knows that “ecdysiast” is a fancy word for “stripper,” but you’d have to read this book to know that the Procrastinators Club of America gave its first Procrastinator of the Year award to America’s ecdysiasts, “for putting things off” (page 413). It’s a trivia chestnut that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same July Fourth, but it takes a Stan Newman to tell you that Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter, the parents on Family Ties, were both born on June 21, 1947 (page 98).
15,003 Answers is full of gems like that—I can guarantee you at least one eyebrow-raise per page and a grin every three. To return to my overworked seed metaphor, I like to picture Stan as a modern-day Johnny Appleseed of trivia, walking down some country road, whistling as he sprinkles his tiny seeds of knowledge into the wind. But these seeds won’t all grow into boring old apple trees—they’re kumquat and fennel and guava and kohlrabi seeds. Stan is busy populating our humdrum workaday world with much more interesting fruit, one trivia fact a time.
Studying 10,000 Answers helped me cram for Jeopardy!, so just think how much more money than me you’ll win now that there are 5,003 extra answers on hand. (I think this volume’s cover should have a big detergent-box splash that shouts “Now With 50.03% More Trivia!” but there are good reasons why publishers don’t put foreword-writers in charge of cover copy.) But even if 15,003 AnswersFamily Ties never gets you on a quiz show, spermologers, it’s both an indispensable reference and a blast to browse.
What can I say? It’s a seminal work in the field.