Middle English pleien, from Old English plegan, plegian "move lightly and quickly, occupy or busy oneself, amuse oneself; engage in active exercise; frolic; engage in children's play; make sport of, mock; perform music," from Proto-West Germanic *plegōjanan "occupy oneself about" (source also of Old Saxon plegan "vouch for, take charge of," Old Frisian plega "tend to," Middle Dutch pleyen "to rejoice, be glad," German pflegen "take care of, cultivate"), which is apparently connected to the root of plight (v.), but the ultimate etymology is uncertain and the phonetic development is difficult to explain.
Meaning "to take part in" a martial or athletic game is from c. 1200. It has been opposed to work (v.) since late 14c. Meaning "perform or act on the stage" (transitive) is by late 14c., as are the senses of "take the role of" and "make a pretense of, make believe" and "act thoughtlessly or wantonly." Sense of "put forward, move, throw, lay on the table, etc." in the course of a game or contest is by 1560s of chess pieces, 1670s of playing cards. Sense of "operate or cause to operate with continuous or repeated action" is from 1590s. Meaning "to cause (a recording) to reproduce what is on it" is by 1903, probably from the "make music" sense. Related: Played; playing.
Many expressions are from the stage, sports and games, or music, and it is not always easy to say which is from which. To play up "emphasize" is from 1909 (perhaps originally "play music more vigorously"); to play down "minimize" is from 1930; to play along "pretend to agree or cooperate" is from 1929. To play fair "be nice" is from mid-15c. To play house as a children's activity is from 1958.
To play for keeps is from 1861, originally of marbles or other children's games with tokens. To play (something) safe is from 1911; to play favorites is attested from 1902. To play second fiddle in the figurative sense is from 1809 ("Gil Blas"). To play into the hands (of someone) "act in such a way as to give the advantage to one's opponent or a third party" is from 1705. For play the _______ card see card (n.1). For play the field see field (n.). To play with oneself "masturbate" is from 1896 (to play with "have sexual intercourse with" is from mid-13c.). Playing-card "one of a pack of cards used for playing games" is from 1540s.
"trivialities, bits of information of little consequence," by 1932, from the title of a popular book by U.S.-born British aphorist Logan Pearsall Smith (1865-1946) first published in 1902 but popularized in 1918 (with "More Trivia" following in 1921 and a collected edition including both in 1933), containing short essays often tied to observation of small things and commonplace moments. Trivia is Latin, plural of trivium "place where three roads meet;" in transferred use, "an open place, a public place." The adjectival form of this, trivialis, meant "public," hence "common, commonplace" (see trivial).
The Romans also had trivius dea, the "goddess of three ways," another name for Hecate, perhaps originally in her triple aspect (Selene/Diana/Proserpine), but also as the especial divinity of crossroads (Virgil has "Nocturnisque hecate triviis ululata per urbes"). John Gay took this arbitrarily as the name of a goddess of streets and roads for his mock Georgic "Trivia: Or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London" (1716); Smith writes in his autobiography that he got the title from Gay.
I KNOW too much; I have stuffed too many of the facts of History and Science into my intellectuals. My eyes have grown dim over books; believing in geological periods, cave dwellers, Chinese Dynasties, and the fixed stars has prematurely aged me. ["Trivia," 1918 edition]
Then noted c. 1965 as an informal fad game among college students wherein one asked questions about useless bits of information from popular culture ("What was Donald Duck's address?") and others vied to answer first.
Nobody really wins in this game which concentrates on sports, comics and television. Everyone knows that Amos's wife on the "Amos 'n' Andy Show" is Ruby, but who knows that she is from Marietta, Georgia? Trivia players do. They also know the fourth man in the infield of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, the Canadian who shot down Baron Von Richtofen, and can name ten Hardy Boy books. [Princeton Alumni Weekly, Nov. 9, 1965]
The board game Trivial Pursuit was released 1982 and was a craze in U.S. for several years thereafter.
1937, coined in the fantasy tales of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973).
On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' I did not and do not know why. [Tolkien, letter to W.H. Auden, dated 1955]
The word also turns up in a very long list of folkloric supernatural creatures in the writings of Michael Aislabie Denham (d. 1859) as an aside to his explanation that those born on Christmas Eve cannot see spirits. Denham was an early folklorist who concentrated on Northumberland, Durham, Westmoreland, Cumberland, the Isle of Man, and Scotland. This was printed in volume 2 of "The Denham Tracts" [ed. James Hardy, London: Folklore Society, 1895], a compilation of Denham's scattered publications.
What a happiness this must have been seventy or eighty years ago and upwards, to those chosen few who had the good luck to be born on the eve of this festival of all festivals; when the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, bloody-bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, specters, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hobgoblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubuses, spoorns, men-in-the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tales, knockers, elves, rawheads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprets, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yeth-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag-foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraiths, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gallybeggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars' lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, bugaboos, kows, or cowes, nickies, nacks necks, waiths, miffies, buckies, ghouls, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy-carlins Gyre-carling, pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricauns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles korigans, sylvans, succubuses, blackmen, shadows, banshees, lian-hanshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sibyls, nicknevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties, and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its specter, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and crossroads were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit!
[Emphasis added] It is curious that the name occurs nowhere else in folklore, and there is no evidence that Tolkien ever saw this. The word also was recorded from 1835 as "a term generally used in Wales to express a quantity made up of four Welsh pecks" [in English court records for Hughes vs. Humphreys, a weights-and-measures case from Wales]. Hobbitry attested from 1947.