What is a “Trifle” Anyway?

Jeff Nemerofsky, What is a “Trifle” Anyway?, 37 Gonz. L. Rev. 315 (2002).

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Have you ever heard of the word “trifle”? According to Webster’s Dictionary, a trifle is “something of very little value or importance.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “trifle” as “a thing of no moment; a trivial, paltry, or insignificant affair.” Thus, a trifle is something of minor consequence which could easily be overlooked. Nevertheless, trifles continue to play a very important role in American jurisprudence. The word appears in dozens of cases in state and federal law journals, from Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals to the United States Supreme Court.

The legal definition of the word “trifle” is virtually the same as its colloquial counterpart. In law, the word “trifle” originates from the Latin term “de minimis non curat lex,”  which is commonly referred to as “the law does not concern itself with trifles ‘  or “(of a fact or thing) so insignificant that a court may overlook it in deciding an issue or case.”‘ Some courts and commentators have turned the translation of “de minimis non curat lex” into more of an art form, thus providing a different perspective on the standard transliteration. The following examples represent a few of these: “[T]he law does not care for trifles”; “the law does not concern itself with trifles”; “[e]quity will not concern itself with trifles”‘; “[t]he law disregards trifles”; “the law cares not for small things”; “the law does not bother about trifles”; and “the law pays no attention to trifles.” One court has even misspelled the root term “de minimis” as “de minimus. It becomes obvious that, despite a lack of agreement on semantics, most adjudicators agree as to the term’s general meaning. . . . Read More

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