Serendip

09 24 horace walpoleBack in September I wrote about Horace Walpole and mentioned that he invented the words ‘gloomth’ and ‘raint’. Today I want to tell you about another word he came up with that is a little more widely used. On January 28th 1754, we find the first written use of the word ‘serendipity’. Serendipity is a beautiful word for a delightful thing. Most often, it is used to describe a happy coincidence, but Walpole really meant it to convey more than that.

Walpole used the word in a letter to his friend Horace Mann, which is why we know the exact date. Specifically, he was talking about a chance discovery he happened to make about a coat of arms belonging to the Cappello family at the same time as he acquired a painting of one time Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Bianca Cappello. He said he was often making discoveries like this and he called it ‘serendipity’. It was a word he had coined from a Persian fairy tale he read as a child called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’. Serendip is derived from the old name for Sri Lanka, which was in Persian ‘Sarandip’. The story concerns three princes who were sent away by their father to learn wisdom, so that they would grow up to be good kings. On their travels, they divined that there was a camel (which they could not see) on the road ahead of them. They began to speculate, by means of clues they picked up along the way, what the camel was like. They concluded that the camel was blind in one eye, missing a tooth, was lame and was carrying a pregnant woman. It was also carrying a load of butter on one side and honey on the other. A little further down the road, they met a man who had lost his camel. They described the animal so exactly that he thought they must have stolen it. They were arrested and wound up in front of the Emperor to explain themselves.

They said they had noticed that the grass had been eaten on one side of the road, but not the other, even though the grass was better there. So they thought the camel was blind in one eye. They had found lumps of chewed grass in the road, the size of a camel’s tooth and guessed the grass had fallen out through the gap left by its missing tooth. They could see from the animals tracks that it was dragging one of it’s legs, so they knew it must be lame. Their conclusions about what the camel was carrying were made because ants had been attracted by a trail of melted butter on one side of the road and flies to the dripping honey on the other. But what about the pregnant woman? Well that’s a bit weird. One of the princes noticed a spot where the camel had knelt down and some human foot prints where someone had dismounted. Following the footprints he found some urine on the ground. The person had got off the camel for a wee. He dipped his fingers into it and smelled it. He said he was so affected by ‘concupiscence’, which is a way of describing ardent and sensual longing, that he knew the person must have been a woman. So he was a bit strange. Another prince had guessed she was heavily pregnant because, where she had squatted, there were also hand prints in the ground which showed that she had needed her hands to help herself up. Luckily, at that moment the man’s lost camel was found and they were rewarded and appointed as the Emperor’s advisers.

Walpole intended his new word to mean not just a happy coincidence, but a chance discovery by a person who has the intelligence to make use of. As he explained in the letter, the princes were: “…making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of”. So serendipity also involves finding a thing that you were not looking for. Serendipity is about thinking creatively and making connections that others can’t see. We owe a lot of our medical advances to serendipity. If Alexander Fleming had thrown out his mouldy Petri dish instead of taking a closer look, we might not have penicillin. If Wilhelm Röntgen had not been experimenting with a primitive cathode ray tube and a piece of cardboard, we may not have x-rays. It has worked in other areas too. Dr Harry Coover was trying to make an optically clear plastic when he first made superglue. Spencer Silver, who really was trying to make a strong glue, came up with something so pathetic it peeled straight off. But then he used it to invent the post-it note.

There is, should you want it, a word that means the opposite of serendipity. It was coined by William Boyle in his 1998 novel ‘Armadillo’. That word is ‘zemblanity’. Much as the serendipity was formed from the name of a beautiful island in a warm climate that is teeming with life, zemblanity is also named for an island. The island of Nova Zembla is the very opposite of that. It is in the extreme north of Russia and so rocky and inhospitable that they decided to use it to test out their nuclear weapons. Zemblanity means the inevitable discovery of something you’d rather not know. I hope you don’t need it.

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