“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”
T.S. Eliot (Four Quartets)
How do words come to exist? We know they name objects or abstract concepts, and, most of the time, they do a very good job at helping us express our ideas. But are there enough words? Some authors have come across the need to invent a word, a single term, to describe something you would otherwise need a string of designations to refer to.
Some of the words invented do not require an explanation as they have a very intuitive meaning. The reader in 1836 could easily understand what “butterfingers” meant when Dickens first wrote it. However, there are others which need a little more context.
Has it ever happened to you to be looking for something, or nothing at all, and accidentally discovering something else that is far more useful and that you didn’t even know you needed?
Well, that is serendipity.
Noun: The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy of beneficial way: “a fortunate stroke of serendipity”
- Origin: 1754: coined by Horae Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”.
Adjective: Occuring or discovered by chance in a happy or beneficial way: “a serendipitous encounter”
Another way of thinking about serendipity is to explain it as something more than chance. Some suggest the discoveries we often attribute to this sort of happy coincidence have, in fact, its roots in previous efforts, in the right tools and in knowledge and persistence, even if directed at a different outcome.
Here are some examples of serendipitous findings:
Penicillin, insulin and quinine, in medicine; the microwave, Teflon and vulcanized rubber, in science; and Coca-Cola, corn flakes and saccharin, in food.
The New Oxford Dictionary of English
“The story of serendipity”. Understanding Science. University of California Museum of Paleontology
English, Marianne. “10 accidental inventions you won’t believe”. Stuff of Genius