When I decided to write an article for Glyph blog readers on the etymology of “serendipity”, I had no idea I would be entering into the study of a word whose origins were far less straightforward than I’d bargained for – and into the fray of some linguistic controversy…
The assertion that serendipity is notoriously difficult to translate from English into other languages will often turn up while conducting research on the word serendipity; “voted one of the top 10 most difficult English words to translate by a British translation company” is a ubiquitous passage on the web.
The translation company Today Translations had conducted a survey of translators to determine what they considered to be the most difficult non-English words to translate into English, and vice versa. The results of the survey were published in a 2004 The Times of London article by Robin Young, entitled, “The special words that are somehow lost in translation”. Here are the results reposted on a discussion thread of a forum.
For translators involved in English translation, serendipity was indeed among the top 10. Others included words used chiefly in British English, for example, googly (a term used in cricket), but a classic American culinary contribution made it on the list: Spam.
A word search
As I delved further into the origins and definitions of the word serendipity, I began to see how the word might have made the top 10 list...
In fact, my assumption was that serendipity’s etymology would be relatively easy and include the word “serene”. Perhaps the last half of the word “-dipity” might yield something interesting, something to do with the word “dip”, or perhaps, if I was lucky, something more mysterious, something that would have made the creators of the hair-styling gel of the 1970’s, Dippity-do, choose to name their product after it…
One search tells me that “serene” comes from the Latin serenus which means “cloudless”, and by extension, calm and peaceful. Another tells me that the English language gets its version from the Old French serain, meaning “dusk” from the Latin “sērus“, meaning “late”. Collins English Language Dictionary has “serein” as an entry in English and defines it as follows:
n (Earth Sciences / Physical Geography) fine rain falling from a clear sky after sunset, esp in the tropics Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003
The fine rain falling from a clear sky after sunset… Sounds pretty serene, doesn’t it? And may even be a description of a serendipitous meteorological phenomenon. So let’s look a little more closely at the etymologies of two other possibilities, “sērus” and “serēnus”. From an email correspondence with Dr. Tyler Lansford, Classics instructor at University of Colorado at Boulder:
According to the Oxford Latin Dictionary, the etymology of serēnus ('clear', 'bright', 'fair', 'tranquil') is unknown. The short ĕ in the first syllable of serēnus means that it's etymologically unlikely that it's related to sērus (late). A possible cognate is the Greek xēros ('dry', as in 'xeroscape'), although the quantity of vowels (short versus long) is one of the most persistent characteristics in Indo-European words and is unlikely to vary between two cognates.
However, regardless of the origins of serēnus, serendipity’s etymology has neither Latin nor Greek roots, much to my surprise.
A vogue word
So where does the word “serendipity” come from? In this case, “where” ends up being the perfect question.
In fact, there is no real controversy surrounding the origins of the word. Horace Walthrop is credited with coining the term. From Wikipedia:
The first noted use of "serendipity" in the English language was by Horace Walpole (1717–1797). In a letter to Horace Mann (dated 28 January 1754) he said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of". The name stems from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka (aka Ceylon), from Arabic Sarandib, from Tamil "Seren deevu" or from Sanskrit Suvarnadweepa or golden island [...]
The controversy surrounding Walthorp’s formation, definition and usage of serendipity has perhaps best been described by Richard Boyle in a book review titled "Serendipity: How the vogue word became vague." Boyle, author of Knox's Words: A Study of the Words of Sri Lankan Origin, contends that the entry for serendipity in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is lacking because it makes no mention of the key element necessary for a fortunate event to be an instance of serendipity. From the OED:
Etymology: < Serendip, a former name for Sri Lanka + -ITY suffix. ...
The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery. Formerly rare, this word and its derivatives have had wide currency in the 20th century.
The missing element in the OED definition is that the “unexpected discoveries” need to occur “while looking for something else.” Otherwise, what distinguishes a serendipitous event from plain old luck?
Another key element of serendipity is essential to the end result of discovery, “sagacity”, or wisdom; if your mind is not alert to the possibility of there being value in something you’ve encountered while looking for something entirely different, you will not see it. While looking for India, Christopher Columbus unexpectedly ran into what would become known as the Americas; while culturing germs, Alexander Fleming inadvertently grew mold that would become penicillin (video below); while attempting to get my French “green card” [carte de séjour], I instead met my future husband.
The aforementioned examples roughly illustrate the contemporary understanding of the word. Now let’s look at the mention of serendipity and an example from the original story of the Three Princes, as transmitted by Walpole to Mann, where we are likely to meet with some confusion:
"As their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident 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?”
Uh, no. Please try again, Horace.
Horace, trying again…
"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."
That didn’t really help much, Horace. Thanks anyway.
In his review, Boyle quotes the authors of the book in question, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science by Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber: "The complexity of meaning with which Walpole endowed serendipity...was permanently to enrich and to confuse its semantic history."
So is serendipity what you thought it was? Do you have any serendipitous personal examples you’d like to share?