A Short History of the Word ‘Serendipity’
The curious origins behind one of Britain’s favourite words – and its link to Gothic fiction
Word origins, as demonstrated by the popularity of bestselling books like Mark Forsyth’s The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, make fascinating reading. But ‘serendipity’ has a particularly interesting origin-story. The word ‘serendipity’ was invented on 28 January 1754. It was one of two literary creations by its inventor, Horace Walpole, that would achieve widespread popularity. Indeed, both inventions are still with us: when Walpole (son of Britain’s first de facto Prime Minister, Robert Walpole) put down the word ‘serendipity’ for the first time, he was giving the English language one of its most beloved, but bewilderingly difficult, words. His other invention, created ten years after the coining of ‘serendipity’, would spawn a whole now genre of fiction.
As we highlighted in a previous post on the first Gothic novel, Walpole was a prolific inventor, or at least populariser, of new words. He is credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with introducing over 200 words into the English language, among them beefy, malaria, nuance, sombre, and souvenir.
But his most celebrated neologism was ‘serendipity’, meaning the ‘faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’. This was coined in a letter of 28 January 1754 written to another man named Horace, namely Horace Mann. In the letter, Walpole calls the word ‘very expressive’ (if he does say so himself). The word ‘serendipity’ comes from Serendip, the old name for Sri Lanka, but Walpole was indebted to a specific work of literature for the creation of the word.
‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ is one of the earliest detective stories in existence: it tells of how three princes track down a missing camel through luck and good fortune. However, that’s not the whole truth. The three princes in the story do actually utilise what we would now call forensic deduction – almost Sherlockian in its method – and that, ironically, is what gets them into trouble. As they are travelling through the desert, they meet a merchant whose camel has gone missing. Having tracked the animal’s progress through the land, the princes can describe the merchant’s lost camel in such striking detail that he suspects them of having stolen it. Hauling them before the king, Bahram Gur, the merchant publicly accuses the princes of theft, and the king sentences them to death – unless they can produce the camel and return it to its owner.
Among the details of the camel that the princes had correctly managed to deduce, the princes identified that it was lame in one leg, blind in one eye, and had a missing tooth. They deduced these distinguishing features from the patches of grass at which the camel had grazed, and the imprints it had left in the ground. We say ‘deduced’ but here – as with the process of detection used by Sherlock Holmes – ‘deduction’ is actually the wrong word. It’s actually ‘abduction’ – we explain why in this post on Sherlock Holmes.
What happens to the princes in the end? Well (spoiler alert) their lives are ultimately spared, when a traveller shows up and announces that he has seen a camel wandering in the desert – the merchant’s missing camel. The merchant gets his camel back, and the king issues a reprieve to the princes – indeed, he even appoints them his special advisers, in recognition of their talents.
So, despite the common perception of the story – influenced no doubt by the popularity of Walpole’s coinage inspired by the tale – the princes don’t really track down the missing camel at all, nor do they deduce the camel’s features solely by chance or accident. Instead, or at least in addition, they use skill and an almost scientific process of deduction – sorry, abduction – which would probably impress Sherlock Holmes (although maybe not – he was quite scathing about his forensic forebears). Their lives are spared, however, by serendipity, and they owe their subsequent careers to a serendipitous occurrence.
In his 1754 letter, Walpole describes the story of ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ as a ‘silly fairy tale’, going on to say: ‘as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of … One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon’s, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table.’ Again, one can imagine Conan Doyle’s most famous creation performing a similar deduction (sorry, abduction), but ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ was actually first written down in around 1302, in the classic poem ‘Hasht-Bihist’ (or ‘The Eight Paradises’) written by Amir Khusrow.
In 2004, a British translation company declared ‘serendipity’ one of the ten most difficult English words to translate. But in a 2000 poll, it was voted the UK’s favourite word, beating ‘Quidditch’ from the Harry Potter series into second place. Other words to make the top ten were ‘love’ and ‘onomatopoeia’. (Ironically, ‘Jesus’ and ‘money’ had to share the joint tenth place in the poll.)
Other writers have built on Walpole’s coinage: in his 1998 novel Armadillo, William Boyd coined zemblanity as a complementary term, defined as ‘making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries occurring by design.’ Zemblanity takes its name from an Arctic archipelago called Novaya Zemlya where Dutch explorer William Barents and his crew were stranded in the 1590s. A year after Boyd’s coinage, in 1999, Toby J. Sommers coined bahramdipity to describe the suppression of serendipitous discoveries. The word is formed from Bahram Gur, the king who sentences the three princes of Serendip to death in the story. Sommers defines bahramdipity as ‘the suppression of a discovery, sometimes a serendipitous discovery, by the often-egomaniacal act of a more powerful individual who does cruelly punish, not merely disdain, a person (or persons) of lesser power and little renown who demonstrates sagacity, perspicacity, and truthfulness.’
Ten years after he penned that 1754 letter and coined the word ‘serendipity’, Walpole wrote the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. It effectively launched the Gothic genre single-handedly, though Walpole’s influence on the Gothic movement extended beyond literature: his house at Twickenham, named Strawberry Hill, would help to inspire a Gothic revival in Britain.
Mind you, if we’re being pedantic, ‘Horace’ Walpole wasn’t actually his name – he was born Horatio, which is even more fitting (almost serendipitously so) in light of the fact that he was the first cousin of the grandmother of Lord Horatio Nelson.
If you enjoyed this little word-history, you may enjoy our pick of the best books about words and language. We’ve also delved into the history of the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword‘. More word origins are uncovered in our post on the history of the word muggle and our short history of the word ‘robot’.