Last word from England – “serendipity”

King's at dusk on my last day

I’m home again!

Being of a nostalgic, sentimental inclination, as many of you know, I promise much more in the way of reflective thoughts on my last few crazy days in the UK, when, by the grace of God, I finished my Mphil, said goodbye to good friends, and ended on a very good note indeed. I am blessed, and grateful.

For now, however, I present my final word for The Cambridge Student, for the paper’s May Week issue, which you can find in PDF form here (on p. 16, in its old spot on the left-hand side), or below. I have to thank my forebearing and good-humoured editors, James Burton, and Anna Croall, for letting me repeatedly write such etymological speculations , especially with my Americanized spelling and silly questions.

The word itself is one I had meant to explore last fall (or, rather, autumn, as they call it over there), but had only got around to at nearly the last day I was in England. I hope to keep writing in this space, and either find a new home for my column, while reposting it here, or perhaps writing it just for this blog, if I cannot do that. I will keep you posted, however, as it were. Thanks for reading, during my year away!

But enough preambling:

“Have you ever “found” something when you were not really looking for it? Or met someone, perhaps an old friend, who you did not expect to see?

Such glad happenings are examples of “serendipity,” which the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) defines as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident [or] the fact or an instance of such a discovery.”

This nuanced word contains the idea of finding something you were not even searching for, or had given up on searching for, having lost it once before, and not knowing when you would see it again, if ever.

“Finding” anything without looking for it has a sort of fairy-tale quality. This is quite appropriate, considering that the OED credits the writer and antiquarian Horace Walpole (1717-1797) with finding it without really looking for it, in an ancient Indian fairy story, “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Incidentally, and not surprisingly, the word draws its origins from “Serendip,” an old name for Sri Lanka.

In it, three princes are sent by their father on a far journey to test their wisdom and fitness to rule. Along their way, they have many adventures, as princes in fairy tales are required to do.

In a letter to a diplomat-friend in 1754, Walpole describes “serendipity,” in its first recorded usage in English: “as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of,” such as how they could tell an awful lot about a camel (what it had for breakfast, what it was carrying, and other camel-related information) just by the way it had walked in the sand, judging by its tracks.

This “accidental sagacity,” as Walpole puts it, is worthy of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Father Brown or Lord Peter Wimsey. “For you must observe,” continues Walpole, “that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description.”

Indeed – finding what one is looking for can happen anytime – finding what you are not looking for, or have given up on finding again, now that is serendipity, or, perhaps, Providence.

I myself hope to be more of a “serendipitist,” and develop a keener sense of suspecting serendipity, and hope you do, too, now that term is finished and the summer well-nigh upon us. My MPhil also being done, this columnist will be heading home, back to Seattle in the United States, and to, he prays, more serendipity.

He is grateful to his friends back home and new friends here for letting him humor them with his etymologies, and wishes to thank his readers, for, well, reading. If you have any final word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to Until we meet again, take care!”