How the vogue word became vague
The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in
Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science by Robert K.
Merton and Elinor Barber. Reviewed by Richard Boyle
When Horace Walpole committed the word serendipity
to paper for the first time exactly 250 years ago, had he pondered
the destiny of his neologism he could not have imagined its eventual
popularity, or, for that matter, its consequent debasement. For
while serendipity experienced a kinder fate than other Walpolean
creations such as triptology - coined after observing Samuel Johnson's
"habit of repeating things thrice" - it has suffered grievous
corruption of meaning.
the journeying of this word warrants comprehensive examination is
demonstrated by the sociologist Robert K. Merton and the historian
Elinor Barber in The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study
in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science. The book
has a curious history. Completed in 1958 it was intentionally left
unpublished, serving as a preparation for Merton's seminal work,
On the Shoulders of Giants (1965). Four decades later the authors
agreed to an Italian translation - published in 2002 after Barber's
death - and now, a year after Merton's death, sees the appearance
of the English version.
Merton encountered serendipity during the 1930s in the Oxford English
Dictionary. From the entry he learnt that the word had been formed
by Walpole "upon the title of the fairy tale, 'The Three Princes
of Serendip,' the heroes of which 'were always making discoveries
by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.'"
was intrigued as this accorded with his theories on the importance
of the unintended consequences of intended actions. Thus began the
combined etymological and sociological quest that resulted in The
Travels and Adventures of Serendipity.
chapters detail the word's origin, starting with the 1557 publication
in Venice of The Three Princes of Serendip, a tale concerning the
deductive powers of the sons of the philosopher-king of Serendip.
However, the princes' adventures do not occur in Serendip but in
neighbouring lands, and the king is named Jaffer. Therefore the
latter-day association of Sri Lanka with serendipity is fanciful.
(See this reviewer's Sunday Times article, "The Three Princes
of Serendip," July 30 and August 6, 2000.)
to Horace Mann
In a letter to Horace Mann dated January 28, 1754, Walpole described
an heraldic discovery as "of that kind which I call Serendipity."
He continued by revealing his succinct definition but then blurred
it by providing an inadequate example from The Three Princes: "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?”
if anticipating a lack of understanding and realising that his example
did not suit his definition, Walpole ventured to continue: "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."
it was that Walpole failed from the outset to illustrate satisfactorily
the grand concept of serendipity. As the authors remark, "The
complexity of meaning with which Walpole endowed serendipity . .
. was permanently to enrich and to confuse its semantic history."
Such history was a blank page for many decades as Walpole's word-child
lay dormant until the 1833 publication of his correspondence, although
the authors speculate that it may have been used in conversation
during Walpole's lifetime.
reappeared in print only during the 1870s with the discussion of
the word's etymology in the Oxford journal Notes and Queries. Hence
the word was introduced to a small erudite group, many of them collectors
like Walpole, who were familiar with the phenomenon of accidental
and sagacious discovery.
From the turn of the twentieth century serendipity gained acceptance
for its aptness of meaning among a more diversified literary circle.
Indeed, between 1909 and 1934 the word appeared in all the 'big'
and medium-sized English and American dictionaries. As significant
was its 1951 inclusion in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary,
which reflected the increased likelihood of the casual reader encountering
the word in its downward social percolation.
tracing the lexicographical history of the word the authors reveal
disparities in definition - for instance some dictionaries overlook
the "sagacity" aspect - and assumed characteristics, such
as that serendipitous finds are necessarily valuable and made while
looking for something else. This reviewer, although a language consultant
to the Oxford English Dictionary, disagrees with the dictionary's
definition, "the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries
by accident," because it does not meet Walpole's prescription
of a gift for discovery by accident and sagacity while in pursuit
of something else. These ingredients are cumulative and all should
be mentioned in the ideal dictionary definition. This deficiency,
which has been duplicated in other dictionaries, has resulted in
the belief that "accidental discovery" is synonymous with
serendipity. Furthermore, the word happy is no substitute for sagacity.
By 1958 serendipity had been used in print only 135 times. Merton
assembles remarkable statistics in the afterword - written just
prior to his death - to illustrate its rapid diffusion since. Serendipity
appears in the titles of 57 books between 1958 and 2000 (one of
these books, Frances Isaac's Strands of Serendipity, happens to
lie on my desk at this moment. Furthermore, the word was used in
newspapers 13,000 times during the 1990s and in 636,000 documents
on the Worldwide Web in 2001.
English-speaking world has gone overboard for the word. In 2000,
The Boat Owners Association of the United States reported that Serendipity
was the tenth most popular name for pleasure craft, and in the same
year a poll at the London Festival of Literature revealed that serendipity
headed a list of favourite words. Just as collectors are familiar
with the phenomenon of serendipity, so too are lexicographers. Perhaps
that's why they are fond of the word. Although tired of being asked
"what's your favourite word?" a recent straw poll among
the Oxford English Dictionary staff produced a list that includes
buttle, delphinestrian, discombobulated, gazebo, lucubrate, mumpsimus,
persiflage, twiffler, and, of course, serendipity.
the way, as Merton laments: "Serendipity's initial unique and
compendious meaning of a particular kind of complex phenomenon -
the 'discovery of things unsought' or the experience of 'looking
for one thing and finding another'- becomes ever more eroded as
it becomes ever more popular.
the word becomes so variously employed in various socio-cultural
strata as to become virtually vacuous. For many, it appears, the
very sound of serendipity rather more than its metaphorical etymology
takes hold so that at the extreme it is taken to mean little more
than a Disney-like expression of pleasure, good feeling, joy, or
happiness. For those who have consulted dictionaries for the word,
its typical appearance between serenade and serene may bring a sense
of tranquility and unruffled repose. In any case, no longer a niche-word
filling a semantic gap, the vogue word became a vague word."
it is that in 1992 the word serendipity was emblazoned on the cover
of a catalogue for women's underwear without further explanation.
That in 1999 a review of the autobiography of Sir Alec Guinness
drew attention to the actor's "serendipitous writing style
(sly, witty, elegant)." That in 2001 the following was to be
seen on the Internet: "Serendipity: When love feels like magic
you call it destiny. When destiny has a sense of humour you call
it serendipity." And that in 2002, again on the internet, we
find "Serendipity Airedales, home of the top winning Best in
Show Airedale in the history of the breed."
The demise of serendipity is no better illustrated than in Sri Lanka,
where so many travel-related advertisements and guidebooks use the
extremely tenuous association between the island and serendipity
with varying degrees of ineptitude. No surprise that the magazine
of the travel trade is called Serendipity. One guidebook has the
word serendipity splashed across the back cover without further
explanation. Another states: "Sri Lanka; serendipity: the two
have long been considered synonymous." In similar vein, some
advertisements speak fatuously of the country as the "land
of serendipity." Then there is the in-flight magazine with
a name not far removed from serendipity, which harps on the connotations
of "tranquility and enjoyment."
Serendipity has always been present in discovery: Colombus' discovery
of America, Fleming's discovery of penicillin, and Nobel's discovery
of dynamite, provide just a few examples. Later chapters trace serendipity's
uneven embracement by science, which began in the 1930s when Walter
Cannon of Harvard Medical School used the word to refer to the phenomenon
of accidental discovery in scientific research. Then in March 1946
Merton unveiled his concept of the "serendipity pattern"
in empirical research, "of observing an unanticipated, anomalous,
and strategic datum, which becomes the occasion for developing a
new theory." Thus Merton contributes to the history he charts.
corporations such as Pfizer and Merck have subscribed to the serendipity
pattern, demand for sustained progress in research often prevents
scientists from having the autonomy to take the sidetracks that
on occasion lead to the accidental discovery of new knowledge.
scientific findings are presented according to certain narrative
conventions that obscure serendipity's vital role in the acquisition
of new knowledge by providing the opportunity for discovery. The
authors go on to demonstrate that the natural skepticism of science
towards both new words and new theories has a social origin.
fails to reveal that his book is not without precedent due to the
delay in publication, for in 1965 there appeared Serendipity and
the Three Princes, edited by Theodore G. Remer, which covers much
of the territory explored by Barber and himself. No doubt Remer's
work will henceforth be overshadowed. Nevertheless it is more absolute
as it contains the only direct English translation of The Three
Princes. Conversely The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity shows
signs of being incomplete due to its extraordinary gestation. The
book is, however, redeemed by stringent scholarship and an elegant
Boyle is the author of Knox's Words: A Study of the Words of Sri
Lankan Origin or Association First Used in the English Language
by Robert Knox and Recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary.)
era blanketed by blood
Sons of the Rebel by Gaston Perera.
Reviewed by Priya David. Published by Vijitha Yapa Publications
'History has many
cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides by vanities."
( Gerontion- T.S. Eliot)
Yes, history is a dangerous mistress when courted by the false lover,
the historical adventurer whose real passion is his personal agenda.
According to his wish, she lets him misdirect himself into the "cunning
passages" and "contrived corridors" of her archives
to emerge with spurious "issues" that serve primarily
to feed his "vanities" or "ambitions".
the genuine student, however, she reveals her heart. Enriched by
the insights afforded by the experience, he discharges the proper
role of the writer of historical fiction. This is, of course, to
render in imaginative terms the lessons of the past so that the
present can, if it so wishes, avoid learning them the hard way.
previously unacquainted with Perera as a writer, I wondered whether
this novel might be one of those "ambitious" undertakings
to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience
of my race" - the Joycean aspiration that can be, and has been,
sadly misapplied in the context of a modern, interdependently multi-racial
Sri Lanka. What I found, however, was a work of historical fiction
that is as balanced and objectives as it is sensitive and passionate.
As such, it succeeds in convincing the unbiased reader of the universal
relevance of the issues at stake in a period so seemingly remote
from our own.
background of the novel is the Kandyan resistance to the Portuguese
at a climactic phase of the latter's campaign for islandwide domination.
Its subject is the struggle for proper leadership on either side
of the conflict. From this context emerges the central theme of
the sad incompatibility of high-mindedness with greatness in a world
that is governed by realpolitik. It is a measure of the writer's
breadth of sympathetic vision that this conflict is perceived in
the case of the Portuguese General de Saa as well as in that of
the rightful heir to that Kandyan throne, Kumarasinghe. A counter
pointed sub-theme is the relative success that greets both the Machiavellian
scheming and outright power-abuse on the part of the Regent and
the perfidious expediency of the "lascorin" commanders.
the thickening of the plot come several related issues. These, too,
are found on both the Kandyan and the Portuguese sides of the experience.
They include the destructive effects of disunity, the corruption
bred by the lust for power, the victimisation of women, the complicity
of established religion in rulers’ abuse of power and the
cynical manipulation of human beings for personal ends. On the positive
side are the progress made possible by good leadership, the admirable
valour of the common soldier and the need for mutual respect in
marital love. This complex of issues convincingly presented indicates
the extent of the writer's imaginative meditation on his material.
his introductory talk on the occasion of the launching of the book,
Perera stated that once the writer of historical fiction has assembled
his historical facts and his store of period lore, it is up to him
to tell his story with all the resources of language at his command.
We are obviously interested in this aspect, since the effective
use of language is vital to the success of the serious work of fiction,
whether historical or not.
finds oneself in the hands of a refreshingly educated author. More
than the agreeable fluency and expressiveness of the writing, this
refers to the highly civilised tenor of Perera's commentary. There
is no didacticism or sentimentality, neither partiality nor design
on the reader's reactions. An objective humanness, all too rare
today, pervades the writing.
is at his expressive best in the episodes involving action. The
fury of battle, the excitement of a perilous journey by sea, the
tensions of a covert operation are skilfully conveyed without losing
sight of the plight of individual participants. The insights into
the all-too-brief man and wife relationship are moving. The researched
background material is well employed to provide the necessary depth
of social context for the plot.
danger for the historical novelist lies in the very advantages he
enjoys, namely the generous supply of historical donnees by way
of dramatis personae, story-line, setting and sundry period information.
He could be led, unwittingly into treating the personality and psychology
of his key characters, too, as donnees rather than exploring and
revealing these through the creative process.
becomes evident in the characterisation of the protagonists, Kumarasinghe
and De Saa. We are not sufficiently shown how their uncompromising
idealism proceeds from their mental and emotional make-up. Hence,
their largely self-defeating decisions do not carry the degree of
conviction needed for the reader to be able fully to empathise with
them. Dialogue and interior monologue, so useful for probing the
mind and the heart, tend to be hammed in by narrative comment, and
to be illustrative rather than actually generative of consciousness.
This is the case also with the symbolism employed at critical points,
which seems to be excessively studied. Thus the human tragedy implicit
in the fate of these two men does not affect us as powerfully as
it might, its emotional impact being insufficient.
the appeal of this book is, thus, ultimately at an intellectual
more than at an emotional level is a point that has to be made in
its assessment as a creative work. But this in no way takes away
from one's appreciation of its stimulating effect and of its distinctive
contribution to the realm of authentic historical fiction. Through
the serious and imaginative contemplation of his material Gaston
Perera has, to borrow a phrase from "The Four Quartets",
enabled us to take that necessary "backward look behind the
assurance of recorded history." It is a look we can ill afford
to neglect taking with him if we genuinely want to learn from the
past to better understand the present and better anticipate the
Village and campus violence
Ashley- Portrait of a Village
by David Ellington and The Vague Poetess by Shavindra Fernando
Excerpts from a literary review: Oriel
College Record 2004 by James Methven, University of Oxford
is a village in Cheshire, on the edge of Manchester. ‘The
Vague Poetess’ is set in a university in Sri Lanka beset by
the violence of Sinhala extremists rebelling against the government's
handling of the Tamil Tiger uprising.
Ellington's Ashley. Portrait of a village, is a lasting time capsule
of social history and knowledge expressed verbatim in the chatty
and revealing language of what were obviously relaxed and candid
interviews. Ellington (matric.1960) has a knack for bringing out
the most telling memory from the villagers interviewed.
of them read like scripts for a radio drama, perhaps in the same
vein as David Hare's The Permanent Way, and it would be great to
know the rhythm of the original delivery. The memories of the Second
World War are thrillingly at a tangent to the usual presentation
of that conflict.
through with fascinating insights and gold-dust gems of local thought
and perception, the book will please those, like me, who find at
certain times that quotidian detail is the nearest thing we have
in life to some aspects of post-modern artistic control, a kind
of endless creativity born out of a burrowing in the mundane and
the real. There's a lulling poetry to such remarks as, "The
difficulty with the tree in a modern society is that the tree is
not compatible with impatient people. Modern society as a whole
is very impatient." And if you start to be affected by any
nagging, sly Monty Pythonesque doubts, whereby no imparting of information
can be taken wholly seriously, then the real world and its real
history intrudes to remind you that the lives of the people in Ashley
on the edges of Manchester have a much wider global meaning.
Fernando's first novel, ‘The Vague Poetess’ (1999),
tells of shocking events in a language that appears deceptively
unable to bear the load expected of it. Fernando's story covers
the sexual, social, and psychological manipulation surrounding a
disastrous revival of Lorca's ‘Blood Wedding’ at the
University of the Sleeping Giant in the late nineteen-eighties.
How many reading this are aware of the events in Sri Lanka at the
of the book's best moments shows the bleakly comic result of a Western
journalist's attempt to intrude, fobbed off by a local policeman:
"You bloody bastards come here to write about human rights?
B----off from here, and tell the world that I told you that if I
have to kill people to end this bloody business, I will kill people."
depiction of horrific violence is no fiction. The culminating sequence
of revolt and violence that includes the decapitation of twelve
young people, their bodies left to burn in a makeshift funeral pyre
upon the steps of the Senate House of the University, is not fiction
is timely about this novel is its insistence upon an interiority
that betrays an overlapping crux of ignorance, fear, and desire.
The narrative texture varies between blank dialogue, subtext expunged,
and a detached lyrical voice, as if writing at an enormous distance
from the material.
mirrors the strangely naive focus of the university students who
choose to go through with their production of Lorca, seemingly oblivious
to the rising chaos around them.
turns beautiful, comic, close, perceptive, and painfully aware,
Fernando's story makes its point: "You can't be playing the
fool in the middle of a revolution." With a Sinhala language
screen-play version Rudira Kasadaya, there is talk of a film.
James Methven teaches 19th century realist fiction and 20th century
drama at the University of Oxford, with interest in psychoanalytical
approaches to literature)