If you were to ask one hundred people for the definition of ‘trite’, I predict a large percentage would say it means ‘silly’, ‘superficial’, ‘inconsequential’, ‘trivial’ or something similar. That’s not what it means, though.
We can use one or more of those words to describe something which also happens to be trite, but the words aren’t directly related. None of the words is a synonym of ‘trite’.
The word ‘trite’ is an adjective. It comes from the Latin tritus, part of the verb terere, which means ‘to rub or grind’ or ‘to wear out’. People would once use it to describe objects that were worn out or frayed after being used, or rubbed, for a long time. Imagine the effect if you continually rubbed clothes on rough stones to clean them. The modern equivalent would be stone-washed denim.
How to use ‘trite’
In modern English, rather than referring to objects, ‘trite’ describes words, expressions and responses that are tired and worn out from overuse.
His responses were predictable and trite (unoriginal, stale and boring).
The words of the song were rather trite (yawn… we’ve heard it all so many times before).
They might also be silly or superficial, but that’s an additional drawback.
Other related words
English words that also came from the Latin terere or tritus are:
Attrition (n) – the process of wearing something down (e.g. enemy forces) to weaken it or lessen its effectiveness. The opposing army waged a war of attrition.
Contrite (adj) – repentant; presumably worn down and crushed by the knowledge of one’s wrongdoing. The sinner was abject and contrite.
Detrimental (adj) – contributing to harm, damage or deterioration. Their lifestyle choices were detrimental to their health.
Detritus (n) – rubble or gravel produced by the wearing down of rocks. The coastline was strewn with detritus washed ashore by the waves.
Tritors (n) – teeth with surfaces adapted for grinding. There were three rows of tritors in the fish’s jaw.
Trituration (n) – the process of grinding or grating something into a fine powder. The pharmacist prepared the trituration by mixing various chemical salts.
The ultimate in ‘trite’
A cliché is an expression that is completely trite – so overused and familiar it has lost its power.
Note: lots of people use this word wrongly, too.
‘Cliché’ is a noun: Every single thing she said was a cliché.
The adjective form is ‘clichéd’: It was such a clichéd idea.
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