- March 4, 2016
- Posted by: Madrigal Admin
- Category: Word of the Week Blog
Serendipity must be one of my favourite words. Its adoption into English is a wonderful story. In 1754 Horace Walpole, the son of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, composed a letter that introduced serendipity into the English language:
… It was once when I 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 … now do you understand serendipity?
The Three Princes of Serendip was published in Venice in 1557 as a translation of the Italian Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo which was a translation of part of a Persian poem, the Hasht Bihisht (The Eight Paradises) of 1302, the first mention of the three princes.
The story of the three princes revolves around them working out a problem about a missing, lame, blind, toothless, camel carrying a pregnant woman, honey and butter. By identifying the particular camel the princes are rewarded by a king and then set off on an adventure in which they make accidental discoveries due to their undoubted cleverness.
The three princes were from Serendip, the old name for Ceylon or Sri Lanka. Serendipity, meaning the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident, comes directly from the story. Serendipity has been incorporated into other languages: French sérendipicité or sérendipité, and Italian serendipità.
Some argue that the definition must includes the preconditions of intelligence and wisdom for serendipity to truly occur—as in the story of the three princes—or the discovery is merely luck. However, I think it is not so much luck nor intelligence but as John Barth wrote in The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991):
You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it.
You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings serendipitously.