The Etymology of “Serendipity”

The word “serendipity” was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole. He drew it from an English variation of the Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip,” which was about three princes who always made discoveries that they were not looking for on their adventures. “Serendip” is the Old Persian name for Sri Lanka, originally from Sanskrit “Simhaladvipa,” meaning “Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island.”

Horace (or Horatio) Walpole was an English historian, Whig party politician and fourth Earl of Orford—and he was also the son of the de facto first British Prime Minister. Deeply committed to art history and antiquity, Walpole is often credited with reviving the Gothic art and literary style significantly before the Victorian Era. His book The Castle of Otranto, which you can read in its entirety here, is often considered to have begun the Gothic literary genre. (Does that make him a goth or a hipster?)

The Oxford English Dictionary credits Walpole for the invention and/or introduction of more than 200 English words, including souvenir, malaria, beefy and nuance. He produced so much written work—including political and historical books and commentary, letters, novels and more—that the house he commissioned for himself, Strawberry Hill, had its own printing press called the Strawberry Hill Press to support his writing habits. You can read many of Walpole’s letters in this compilation book.

The wordserendipity first appeared in a letter he wrote to his distant relative Sir Horace (also Horatio) Mann in January 1754. Mann’s chief historical significance is his prolific 40-year correspondence with Walpole, but he was was well-known at the time for his generosity and kindness and was a talented diplomat who earned the title “Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary” in 1782.

As I mentioned above, Walpole pulled the word from the fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip.” “Serendip” is the Old Persian name for Sri Lanka, which was known as Ceylon in English from 1815 to 1948. It comes from the Arabic name “Sarandib,” which is in turn from Sanskrit “Simhaladvipa,” meaning “Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island.”

The English version of the story was a translation of a French version, which was in turn a translation of a Venetian version by Michele Tramezzino, called Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo (The pilgrimage/travels/adventures of  the three young sons of the king of Serendippo).

Tramezzino evidently heard the story from the Middle Eastern-Italian translator Cristoforo Armeno, who had first translated it into Italian from the 1302 Persian poem “The Eight Paradises” (Hasht-Bihisht) by Amir Khushrow, a Sufi musician, poet, mystic and scholar whose work was particularly iconic on the Indian subcontinent in the 13th-15th centuries.

The fairy tale is rather silly in tone, as the princes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Voltaire also adapted the story in his 1747 novella Zadig, or The Book of Fate, which would come to influence modern detective diction and elements of the scientific method.

In one adventure, the princes (who have been sent out to learn and adventure by their father), attempt to find a lost camel for a merchant. While still searching for it, they run into the merchant again, and tell him that they have determined that the camel is lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and bearing honey on one side and butter on the other. Thinking they’ve seen it, the merchant thinks they’ve stolen it and takes them to the emperor for judgment. When the emperor asks them how they know so much detail about it, they explain the clues they found:

Grass had been eaten from the side of the road where it was less green, so the princes had inferred that the camel was blind on the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road that were the size of a camel’s tooth, they inferred they had fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was evident because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.

As for the woman, one of the princes said: “I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman, because I had noticed that near the tracks where the animal had knelt down the imprint of a foot was visible. Because some urine was nearby, I wet my fingers and as a reaction to its odour I felt a sort of carnal concupiscence, which convinced me that the imprint was of a woman’s foot.”

“I guessed that the same woman must have been pregnant,” said another prince, “because I had noticed nearby handprints which were indicative that the woman, being pregnant, had helped herself up with her hands while urinating.”

 

As gross and weird as the “concupiscence” element is, for their cleverness, the emperor makes them his advisors and showers them with riches.

1 thought on “The Etymology of “Serendipity””

  1. In the etymology of ‘serendipity’, the beginning of the Sanskrit word ‘simha’ may be a derivation or progenitor of ‘simbha’, the swahili (?) word for lion. I believe in Sanskit that is the location of the noun portion of an adjective phrase, which in this case describes the land.

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