Serendipity: 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.

That 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 Completed in 1958 it was intentionally left unpublished, serving as a preparation for Merton's seminal work, On the Shoulders of Giants (1965).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.

Fairy tale begins
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.'"

Merton 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.

Initial 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.)

Letter 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?”

As 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."

So 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.

Serendipity 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.

Dictionary meaning
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.

In 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.

Favourite terms
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.

The 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.

Along 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.

Ultimately 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."

So 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."

Land of serendipity
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."

A discovering world
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.

Although 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.

Furthermore 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.

Merton 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 style.

(Richard 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.)

An 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".

To 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.

Being 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.

The 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.

With 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.

In 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.

One 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.

Perera 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.

The 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.

This 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.

That 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 future.

A Cheshire 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

Ashley 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.

David 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.

Some 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.

Shot 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.

Shavindra 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 time?

One 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."

Fernando's 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 at all.

What 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.

This 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.

By 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.

(Dr. James Methven teaches 19th century realist fiction and 20th century drama at the University of Oxford, with interest in psychoanalytical approaches to literature)

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