When Serendipity becomes Zemblanity

By Richard Boyle

A few weeks ago the tappal karaya delivered a package from The Netherlands containing a newly-published art volume, a collection of silkscreen posters entitled Serendipity: Found Posters. The spine, confusingly, didn’t carry the title but an explanation of it: “SERENDIPITY The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy and beneficial way: a fortunate stroke of serendipity: a series of small serendipities”.

I have a special interest in the etymology of “serendipity”, partly as a result of being the Sri Lankan English consultant of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). In particular I try to correct the common misconception that the 18th-century writer Horace Walpole coined the word in a book written by him called The Three Princes of Serendip. In fact, this book, a fairytale of sorts, was compiled and published in 1557 by a Venetian, Michele Tramezzino. It was in 1754 that Horace Walpole created the word serendipity from an episode in this tale about the quest for a missing camel. Surprisingly, the first direct English translation of Tramezzino’s work appeared only in 1964 as Serendipity and the Three Princes: From the Peregrinaggio of 1557.

The second misconception is that serendipity is synonymous with simple accidental discovery, an idea at variance with Walpole’s more complex and metaphorical original meaning. His explanation centres on the heroes of the tale, who, he says, “were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”. Even the OED definition, “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident”, 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.

Serendipity: Found Posters “The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy and beneficial way” is a perfect example of inadequate definition. The word “happy” (used even in the OED definition) cannot be a substitute for “sagacity”.

On the final page I learnt from the editor, Hans Gremmen, that these posters “were found at the silkscreen workshop of Paul Wyber of WyberZeefdruk (WyberScreenprint) in Amsterdam”. But where does serendipity fit in? Surely you don’t go to a silkscreen studio and find the product by accident while in search of something else?

History supports the more nuanced meaning through significant examples of accidental and sagacious discovery. There is Columbus’s discovery of America, Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin and Alfred Nobel’s discovery of dynamite. Conversely, there have been some extraordinary uses of the word. My favourite is the 1992 catalogue for women’s underwear, on the cover of which “serendipity” was emblazoned without explanation. Then there’s the following nugget of wisdom found on the Internet in 2001: “Serendipity: when love feels like magic you call it destiny. When destiny has a sense of humour you call it serendipity.”

When I leafed through Found Posters I not only stumbled on a section that was upside down (I assume intentionally) but also an excerpt from the chapter “Horace Walpole, Serendipity, and the Three Princes” from my book Sindbad in Serendib. Then I remembered the editor’s name, Hans Gremmen: he had emailed me requesting permission to reproduce the excerpt some months earlier.

Pity Gremmen didn’t quote this lament by Robert K Merton and Elinor Barber in the masterpiece on the subject, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity (2004):

“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. Ultimately the word becomes so variously employed in various socio-cultural strata as to become virtually vacuous. For many, the very sound of serendipity rather than its metaphorical etymology takes hold so that at the extreme it is taken to mean little more than a Disneylike expression of pleasure, good feeling, or happiness. No longer a niche-word filling a semantic gap, the vogue word became a vague word.”

It’s certainly in vogue. Although used in print only 135 times by 1958, serendipity appeared in the titles of 57 books between 1958 and 2000. Furthermore, the word was used in newspapers 13,000 times during the 1990s. And a few mouse clicks will find that serendipity is to be found in some eight million online documents.

Inevitably, the “Disneylike expression of pleasure” concept of serendipity is utilised – dare one say, overused – in most tourist publications on Sri Lanka, usually to describe paradisiacal discoveries within the island’s shores.

Fortunately, hackneyed and incorrect usage of serendipity is being countered by a radically different interpretation of the word, an effort that focuses on understanding its complex metaphorical etymology. That this revitalised original concept of serendipity relates to the field of conciliation and mediation is particularly apt. The relevance of the word in peace-building was first expounded upon in The Moral Imagination: The art and soul of building peace (2005) by John Paul Lederach. The book proposes that peace-building is both a learned skill and an art – a creative act and an exercise in moral imagination. In a chapter titled “On Serendipity: The gift of accidental sagacity”, Lederach writes:

“Serendipity is the wisdom of recognizing and then moving with the energetic flow of the unexpected. It has a crablike quality, an ability to accumulate understanding and create progress by moving sideways rather than in a linear fashion. Serendipity pushes us to think about attitude and humility, the nature of developing theories of social change . . .

“Serendipity requires peripheral vision, not just forward-looking eyesight. It is the single greatest antidote to state politics and tunnel vision. Serendipity describes the fascination and frustration of sideways progress that constitutes the human endeavour of building peace.

“But what does serendipity have to do with real politics? I respond, ‘Everything’. In the real world, the element that assures extinction is unidirectionality, a single-mindedness of process and response in pursuit of a purpose. Survival requires adaptation to constantly changing environments, finding ways to move sideways while maintaining clarity of purpose. The key is how to build from the unexpected, how to connect accident with sagacity. “Serendipity is the gift of life. It keeps us alive to constant growth and unending potential, if we develop a capacity to see what is found along the way and adapt creatively while keeping a keen sense of purpose. Spiders, crabs, skin, rivers and peacebuilders are artisans of social change.”


Those who believe in the Law of Opposites – that everything is a unity of opposites, such as the negative and positive charges of electricity – will understand that the concept of serendipity must have a contrary aspect. The English novelist William Boyd contemplated this in his novel Armadillo (1998), and even suggested the antonym – zemblanity:

“So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design. Serendipity and zemblanity: the twin poles of the axis around which we revolve.”

The derivation of “zemblanity” is widely discussed on the Internet, yet the term appears in the title of a recently-published book by Simon Hertnon concerning words with an uncertain future, From Afterwit to Zemblanity: 100 Endangered Words Brought to Life. Well discussed though it may be, there is little actual literary usage, unlike that of “serendipity”.

It’s easy to envisage, like Boyd, that the opposite of paradisiacal Serendib should be geographically and otherwise far removed - a barren, icebound, northern land. In fact Zembla is the shortened version of the name Nova Zembla, an archipelago of islands north of Russia once used for nuclear testing.

Nova Zembla itself is a Latinisation of the Russian novaya zemlya, which means ‘new land’. So, zemblanity has the bizarre meaning of ‘land-ity’. The Oxford English Dictionary is not contemplating an entry for the word at present, but it does include Zembl(i)an: “a. adjective Belonging to Nova Zembla, a group of islands in the Arctic Ocean north of Archangel in Russia; hence, arctic. b. noun A native or inhabitant of Nova Zembla.”

Although zemblanity doesn’t have the style or even perhaps the necessity of serendipity, there are aspects of the association of the two words that provide food for thought. For instance, what if Zembla was not a separate island but an opposite aspect of Serendib, that zemblanity was an incompatible but nevertheless equally essential and indispensable part of serendipity?

In Sri Lanka, such an intertwining has appeared in the past 30 years. Serendipity and zemblanity have both been present, inseparably tied. Yet while guidebooks and such-like have waffled on about serendipity in a meaningless fashion, many downplayed the zemblanity that has hovered, ready to catch even the ultra-wary in its grasp. The question is: what will happen to zemblanity now?

Top to the page  |  E-mail  |  views[1]
Other Plus Articles
It's not all song and dance
The sword in the news
Why can’t Interpol help apprehend KP? -- Letter to the editor
Restore the hangman’s noose -- Letter to the editor
Better to call our slow trains Yal Tortoise and Yal Snail -- Letter to the editor
Minister’s deal has rank smell of rotting fish -- Letter to the editor
A gentle warrior who protected her family like a Royal Bengal tiger -- Appreciation
A hero is someone who stands up against fear -- Appreciation
Our two sons are committed to making your dreams come true -- Appreciation
Thank you for your loving kindness -- Appreciation
A rare individual who was a friend to all -- Appreciation
Royal bloom from Lanka graces Chelsea Flower Show
Mosquito-controversy tees off at Golf Course
Hope springs in hot springs
Kishani at Sadler's Wells: Another "first"
SOSL to feature four gifted young soloists and composer
The work of a questioning artist
Graceful movements, expression and feelings
Arangetram of Tharshika Rajendran
Concert by the Revelations a great performance
Wide world of our wilds
Delving into a linguistic phenomena
Dealing with conflict
When Serendipity becomes Zemblanity
Remembering a great scholar


Reproduction of articles permitted when used without any alterations to contents and a link to the source page.
© Copyright 2009 | Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka. All Rights Reserved.| Site best viewed in IE ver 6.0 @ 1024 x 768 resolution