Tag Archives: Horace Walpole

“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.


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Research in motion: more from my “serendipity” notebook

Tempted as I am (on a desultory Monday morning following a night of insomnia) to tell myself that playing for a few hours on “The Random Guardian” will tell me all I need to know about serendipity and the future of journalism, I’ve instead conjured the scholar in me and begun to look a bit further into the history of the elusive tale known in English as The Three Princes of Serendip (keeping in reserve the alluring prospect of playing journalistic chatroulette in my off-hours).  Since I was googling with purpose this time around, it didn’t take long to turn up a 2-part tract dedicated to “the fabled story that inspired Horace Walpole to coin the word serendipity,” published online in 2000 by its author, Richard Boyle.  http://livingheritage.org/three_princes.htm

A quick check on Boyle’s credentials yielded a review of the Sri Lankan historian’s new book at http://www.ondaatje.com/reviews/KnoxWords.htm   According to Christopher Ondaatje, “Richard Boyle, who lives in Sri Lanka, has devoted the greater part of the past two decades to researching the cultural aspects of the British colonial period in Ceylon after the expulsion of the Dutch in 1796 and the takeover of Kandy in 1815.  Four years ago he began to assist the Oxford English Dictionary in the revision of entries for words of Sri Lankan origin or association contained in the OED‘s second edition.”  So the guy is likely to be a reasonably reliable source on these matters, one that I will quote at length by way of background to this interrogation of serendipity (NB:  I will be quoting Boyle, as well as Boyle quoting Walpole, so heads up).  The citations appear in italics and will carry over into my next post.

On the morning of January 28, 1754, an exceptional Englishman sat down at his desk in the library of his gothic mansion, Strawberry Hill, to attend to his correspondence.  It was a daily ritual, for the man in question was probably the greatest letter writer of his era, or of any other for that matter.  On that winter’s morning in Twickenham, London, he composed a letter in which he committed to paper for the first time a word that has contributed much to the English language.  As a consequence, he resurrected a strange Oriental tale that would otherwise have been condemned to obscurity.

The man in question was Horace Walpole (1717-97), fourth Earl of Orford, son of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, connoisseur, antiquarian and author of the famous gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (London, 1765).  The word he invented was, of course, serendipity.  And the tale he rescued from literary oblivion was The Three Princes of Serendip.  The letter – to Horace Mann, an envoy in the service of King George II stationed in Florence – was written to acknowledge the safe arrival of a portrait of Bianco Capello, a 16th century beauty and Duchess of Tuscany.  This letter is contained among the 31 volumes of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence (New Haven, 1937), edited by Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis.

Trust me.  It gets better.


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Research in motion: from my “serendipity” notebook



[mass noun]  the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way:  a fortunate stroke of serendipity

[count noun]  a series of small serendipities

These definitions, plucked from the Oxford English Dictionary’s online edition, are accompanied in characteristic OED fashion by an account of the word’s “origin”:  “coined by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things that they were not in quest of.””  http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/view/entry/m_en_gb0756730#m_en_gb0756730

Already, then, my interrogation of the significance of “serendipity” exemplifies serendipity, offers itself as an example of what the word, from its putative “origin,” means to say.  I certainly was not in quest of a fairy tale that, in more years than I care to count as a student and teacher of comparative literature, I had never read, in any language (could this in any way be connected to the fact that I still have outstanding student loans?).  How peculiar, then, to be prompted (no doubt in part by my recent reading of Clay Shirky, a great champion of the cognitive surplus behind Wikipedia), to find myself clicking from the OED entry on “serendipity” to the free encyclopedia’s account of The Three Princes of Serendip.  Allow me to recount some of what I learned.

The Three Princes of Serendip is the English version of the Peregrinaggio di tre figluoli del re di Serendippo published by Michelle Tramezzino in Venice in 1557.  Tramezzino claimed to have heard the story from one Christophero Armeno who had translated the Persian fairy tale into Italian adapting Book One of Amir Khusrau’s Hasht Bihisht of 1302.  The story first came to English via a French translation, and now exists in several out-of-print translations.  Serendip is the Persian name for Sri Lanka.

I am riveted as I go on to read that

The story has become known in the English speaking world as the source of the word serendipity, coined by Horace Walpole because of his recollection of the part of the “silly fairy tale” where the three princes by “accidents and sagacity” discern the nature of a lost camel.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Princes_of_Serendip

So, what do a lost camel and the future of journalism have in common?  Stay tuned.

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