Woolfer Words: “Serendipity”
One of my favorite things about Woolfers is how well-read they are, as was evidenced by a recent group thread on favorite words. As a next-level word nerd, I was delighted at the variety of the list, but one word, mentioned again and again, stood out: serendipity.
Serendipity commonly refers to the phenomenon of finding agreeable things not sought for. It also happens to be one of the few words that lexicographers can trace back to a specific person and point in time. The word was coined by Horace Walpole in a 1754 letter to his friend, Horace Mann. Walpole was crowing about accidentally finding something out about a coat of arms he was researching:
“This discovery I made by a talisman, which Mr. Chute calls the sortes Walpolianae, by which I find everything I want, à pointe nommée , wherever I dip for it. This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called the three Princes of Serendip: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand Serendipity?”
Keen readers expecting something a little more cosmic at the core of serendipity than a half-baked Sherlock Holmes subplot will be disappointed to hear that Walpole couldn’t even remember the tale recounted in The Three Princes of Serendip correctly. It wasn’t a mule, but a camel, and the princes only knew about the camel because the camel-driver was looking for it. The princes also told the camel driver that the could tell the camel was toothless and lame because of the pattern of tracks and slobbered grass on the side of the road; that it was carrying honey on one side and butter on the other because of the ants and flies that followed the track; and finally that a pregnant woman was riding it because they smelled her scent and were overcome with lust. Maybe we should be grateful that Walpole forgot the full story.
The “silly fairy tale” that Walpole encountered has a long, winding history, much like the story itself. The original tale was Persian and included in a 14th century book of poetry by the Sufi poet Amīr Khusrow Dehlavī. The first poem about three princes and a lost camel was translated into Italian (and substantially added to, to suit the fashion among Venetian intellectuals for riddles) in the 16th century. From there, it went everywhere; Walpole likely read an English translation of a French translation of the Italian expansion of the original Persian tale. The later translations end happily, with the brothers ruling each of the kingdoms that they have their adventures in.
Though serendipity is that rare word that is both handy and lovely, it didn’t really become common in the language until the mid-20th century—around the same time that The Three Princes of Serendip was retold in a children’s book by Elizabeth Hodges. By then, its meaning had strayed slowly from the one Walpole gave it, and it gained the meaning that we’re most familiar with:
“the accidental discovery of something pleasant.”
But there’s one detail of the original story that often slips by or gets morphed into something more fairy-tale-ish. The story opens with the three well-educated princes being sent out by their father, the king. But the goal of their journey was not to marry princesses, or find treasure, or conquer new lands. The earliest versions of this story are very clear: the boys were being sent out to gain wisdom through experiencing life. Walpole makes it sound like the princes’ discoveries were happy little distractions from their main goal, but those happy little distractions were the goal.
If you read the internet comments on the Merriam-Webster entry for serendipity, you come away spritzed with the perfume of exoticism. Serendipity is kismet, fate, a too-coincidental coincidence, the most meet-cutes of meet-cutes, something that just happens to you when the cosmos wants to get your attention. But when serendipity started being used more in English, it was almost always in reference to unexpected scientific discoveries—things that happened when researchers were watching for something else.
Louis Pasteur, the French scientist who discovered the principles of vaccination but whose name is now most closely associated with milk, famously said “chance favors only the prepared mind.” Perhaps that’s why the word serendipity resonates with so many Woolfers. Cumulatively, we have (as the saying goes) seen some shit, man: marriages, divorces, singleness, children, childlessness, careers, retirement, births and deaths, beginnings and ends of all sorts. You can be crushed by it—or take a perverse joy in it. To survive, we grow watchful and expectant, knowing only that whatever comes next will be the thing that comes next. Having become the wise old crones of fairy tales, we know in our deep waters that no matter what path you set out on, life is going to supply you with ample side trips, detours, and some weird camel spit to investigate along the way.
Kory Stamper is the author of the best-selling nonfiction book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, which chronicles her two-decade career as a dictionary writer for Merriam-Webster. Her writing on words and language has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and on New York Magazine’s The Cut. She is currently a full-time writer, has two adult daughters, and will not cut coffee or alcohol out of her diet though her gyno says it would help with the night sweats.