“the history and derivation of the word ‘serendipity'”

[Richard Boyle, in continuation]

It was in 1980 at a London library that I first accessed Horace Walpole’s Correspondence in order to delve into the history and derivation of the word serendipity.  The Index gave two references.  Number one was to the letter in which Walpole made first written usage of the word, for Walpole infers that he coined it beforehand.  It is necessary to quote this letter almost in its entirely to provide the precise context of the word’s usage. 

[What follows is Boyle quoting Walpole.]

“The head,” Walpole writes of the portrait, “is painted equal to Titian, and though done, I suppose, after the clock had struck five and thirty, yet she retains a great share of beauty.  I have bespoken a frame for her, with the grand ducal coronet on top, her story on a label at the bottom, which Gray is to compose in Latin as short and expressive as Tacitus (one is lucky when one can bespeak and have executed such an inscription!) the Medici arms on one side, and the Capello’s on the other.  I must tell you a critical discovery of mine a propos:  in an old book of Venetian arms, there are two coats of Capello, who from their name bear a hat, on one of them is added a flower-de-luce on a blue ball, which I am persuaded was given to the family by the Great Duke, in consideration of this alliance; the Medicis you know bore a badge at the top of their arms; this discovery I made by a talisman, which Mr Chute calls the sortes Walpolianae, by which I find everything I want a point nomme 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 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?   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.

Having cited the account in Walpoles’s Correspondences, Boyle abruptly takes his precursor to task:

On reading Walpole’s description of the process of serendipity – “They were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of” – it becomes evident that the example cited is not suited to the coiner’s definition.  The ineptness of this example, and the further one that Walpole cites with reference to Lord Shaftsbury, fail to illustrate the grand concept of serendipity.

Not to mention the fact that he substitutes a donkey for a camel in the silly fairy tale in question.  Boyle is, to my mind, absolutely right about inept examples:  they are hard to forgive (if easy to forget).

Up next:  Boyle finds a second reference to ‘serendipity’ in Walpole – you’ll never guess where.


Filed under Books, History and historiography, Journalism, Media, Reading and writing

4 responses to ““the history and derivation of the word ‘serendipity'”

  1. Serendipity or distraction? I plump for the former–in this case anyway–but see what you think.

    This morning, after reading several entries here, in Makurrah’ Blog, I read Vicki Hearne’s marvelous meditation on cats (“What it is about cats”) in Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name (1987), and stumbled unexpectedly (serendipitously) on another serendipity: “…it now occurs to me that the success of language itself may depend a great deal of the time on serendipity…”

    Could we substitute the word media for language? Sometimes, but not always.

    Hearne is interested in interspecies communications; most specifically here, how humans read the ways they are read by cats. (I am convinced that she is right about this but that’s another discussion.) So her sentence continues, after serendipity, thus: “…just as it may just turn out that the variations of ‘meow’ that our powers can detect are always, by accident, the right thing to say” (231). (Here she means “accident” very much the way Austin does when he distinguishes between “mistake” and “accident” in Animal Thinking.)

    Which means, perhaps, we must add cats to camels in this tale of domesticating relations, in which, whatever is serendipitous (meow, media, one word, link, or another, one language or another) is brought home, somehow, or into a fold that might be called “home.” That’s what I’m thinking this morning anyway, after thinking here with you.

  2. makurrah

    First off: Hallelujah! Makurrah has found a true interlocutor. Her efforts are not, after all, in vain.
    I propose, under her firm direction, that we add horses to our mix, and I will look into Hearne, and Cope, and have more to say about all of this. Thanks, girlfriend.

  3. Happiness. You will find, immediately, I promise, that horses were already with us.

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