Wednesday 28 January 2015

A Matter of Serendipity

On this day in 1754, the estimable Horace Walpole composed a letter to his friend, Sir Horace Mann, in which he became the first person to use the word serendipity to describe an unexpected and pleasant discovery.

Walpole commented to Mann that he had come upon the word after reading a Persian fairy story, The Three Princes of Serendip. Indeed, as he noted, the titular three princes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of". 

Horace Walpole by Joshua Reynolds 1756
Horace Walpole by Joshua Reynolds 1756

In Notes on the Etymology of Serendipity and Some Related Philological Observations (1961), Leo Goodman further quotes Walpole's letter to Mann and his efforts to explain this new word of which he was so fond:
"...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 fairytale, 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?"
What a wonderful letter to receive; to correspond with Walpole must have been a delight and his letters to Mann make for an entertaining look into Georgian life and a very singular gentleman!


Geri Walton said...

Great post about the word serendipity.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you!

Unknown said...

Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he isn't. A sense of humor was provided to console him for what he is. - Horace Walpole 4th Earl of Oxford

Catherine Curzon said...

I really feel the need to read some Walpole letters tonight!