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The Fascinating History of The Word Serendipity

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Published Author, Communications Coach and Avid Biker with a penchant for Poetry

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“With a library it is easier to hope for serendipity than to look for a precise answer.”

― Lemony Snicket, When Did You See Her Last?

The Word

Serendipity. It is one of those English words that leaves you with a feeling of wholesomeness. The meaning of the word is equally wonderful. Here’s how the dictionaries define the word serendipity.

Oxford English Dictionary

Serendipity (Noun)

the fact of something interesting or pleasant happening by chance

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Serendipity (noun)

the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for

also : an instance of this

I personally find the Merriam-Webster’s definition more comprehensive. But here’s how you can define serendipity in easy terms: a chance occurrence of events that leads to a surprisingly good outcome.

The word itself is a fairly modern addition to the English language lexicon. In fact, it was invented by Earl of Orford Horace Walpole, an 18th century English aristocrat and politician, remembered now for his fine writing; most notably for his thousands of letters and the short novel The Castle of Otranto. Many consider his novel to be the very first example of the gothic-novel genre. The bulk of Walpole’s letters were written to his friend and namesake Horace Mann. 45 years – that’s how long the two corresponded! And they had met only once!

On 28th January 1754 Horace Walpole wrote to Horace Mann:

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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 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?

The quality of being wise by accident or accidental sagacity is what he was trying to mean and he ended up inventing a word that connected Sri Lanka to Great Britain via India and Iran. Walpole also referred to the tale of the Three Princes of Serendip in his letter. He got the animal wrong though! In the original tale, the animal was a camel. At this point you might be wondering: Why am I reading all this? So, let’s connect the dots and know the whole story.

The Three Princes of Serendip

The Sanskrit name for the island-nation Sri Lanka is Siṃhaladvīpa or the island of the lions. The Arabs came to know about Sri Lanka from their dealings in India and called it Sarandīb, which changed to Serendib or Serendip once it reached the West. Now, the story goes like this. There once lived a great Emperor by the name Bahram Gor. He was a Shahenshah or King-of-Kings of the Sassanid dynasty, the last great Persian house of rulers before the Muslim conquest of Iran.

Bahram’s life was the stuff of legends and it made its way into oriental folklore. He is mentioned in the Shahnama, the preeminent epic of countries like Iran, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Dagestan, Georgia, Turkey, and Turkmenistan – basically all those countries that came under the Persian sphere of influence. The epic – a long paean to the Shahs or rulers of Persian – was written by Ferdowsi, a great 10th century Persian poet, and ended up influencing further works such as the Haft Peykar or Bahramnamah by Nizami, a 12th century Persian poet. Bahramnamah celebrated the life of who-else-but Bahram Gor.

The Bahramnamah went on to influence Amir Khusrau, the famous 14th century Indo-Persian poet of the Delhi sultanate. He wrote his epic poem Hasht-Bihisht based on the Bahramnamah. Hasht-Bihisht, which means The Eight Paradises in Persian (referring to the eight doors of heaven in Islam), narrates folktales told by seven beautiful princesses to Bahram. These seven princesses lived in seven different palaces of seven different colours. But why did the Emperor shower them with royal privileges? Because, guess what, the Three Princes of Serendip had advised Bahram to do so! But how did the Shahenshah come to know the three men in the first place?

The story goes that a wise king of Serendip sent his three sons on a quest for wisdom feigning anger on their reluctance to take the thrown. Secretly he liked how his sons had been tutored and wanted them to gain further wisdom. As the three princes wandered about the edge of a desert, they came across a camel-track. Soon they met a merchant who was looking for his lost camel.

Wanting to help the desperate man, the three princes proceeded to describe the camel they thought had made the track in the sand – lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman and a pot of honey on one side and butter on the other. But this was exactly the merchant's camel! Convinced that these men had stolen his camel, the furious merchant took them to Shahenshah Bahram. In the court of Bahram, the three princes described how they were able deduce how the camel looked and this is nothing short of a Sherlockian deduction!

The camel had munched on grass only on one side of the road, where it was less green than the ones on the other side. So, the camel must have been blind in one eye. There were clumps of unchewed grass on the road the size of a camel’s tooth. So, the camel must have been missing a tooth. The track had three distinct hoof-marks and a fourth one that had been dragged along. So the camel must have been lame in one leg. There was molten butter on one side of the track with ants teeming on it. The other side of the track had flies buzzing on a trail of honey. So, the camel must have been lugging butter and honey.

Then one prince went on to describe how he had seen the footmark of a human where the camel had knelt down on the sand. From a blotch of urine on the soil, the prince was able to deduce that the human was a woman. Then another prince went on to describe how he had seen handprints where the woman had urinated. This meant that the woman had helped herself up with her hands after urinating – a clear indication of her pregnancy! At this point the merchant suddenly discovered his wandering camel. Convinced of the three princes' innocence, Bahram spared their lives.

A series of events followed where the princes made one chance discovery after another and even saved the Emperor. This impressed Bahram so much that he appointed them as his advisors. And thus ends or begins the tale of the three princes!

It is very hard to pinpoint exactly how or when this tale of the Three Princes of Serendip made it to Europe. But it is generally accepted that one Michele Tramezzino of Venice published an Italian translation of the tale - Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo – sometime in the 16th century. But he was merely a publisher. His translator was an elusive Armenian man, Cristoforo. The Peregrinaggio was translated into French, German and English. Walpole probably read it as a child and in his memory the camel changed to a mule.

The birth of the word Serendipity is a fascinating tale. It is a journey that spans continents and eras. It connects the orient with the occident and philosophy with language.

Leave a comment if you want to know more.

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© 2022 Hirak

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