The delightful word serendipity, meaning ‘the occurrence of events by chance in a beneficial way’, was invented by the writer and politician Horace Walpole before or at the beginning of 1754, from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka. Walpole was a prolific letter writer, and he explained to one of his main correspondents that he had based the word on the title of a 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’.
I’ve seen it suggested that the OED‘s definition of the word – “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident” – is at variance with Walpole’s original meaning. However ‘faculty’ suggests a natural ability which could be called ‘sagacity’. Another name for it might be ‘common sense’.
My question would be, are such discoveries just happy accidents or has our successful evolution left us stronger instincts to recognise connections than we sometimes realise? My answer would consider the huge popularity of the detective story, where scattered clues tell a hidden story …
Misfortune befalls The Three Princes of Serendip when a camel driver stops them on the road and asks them if they have seen one of his camels. Although they have not, they have noticed signs that suggest a camel has passed along the road. Ever ready to dazzle with their wit and sagacity, the princes mystify the camel driver by asking him if the lost camel is blind in one eye, missing a tooth and lame. The camel, they say, carried a load of butter on one side and honey on the other, and was ridden by a pregnant woman. Concluding that the princes have stolen the camel, the driver has them imprisoned. It is only after the driver’s neighbour finds the camel that they are released.
The princes are brought before the Emperor, who asks them how they could give such an accurate description of a camel they had never seen. It is clear from the princes’ reply that they had brilliantly interpreted the scant evidence observed along the road.
As the grass had been eaten on one side of the road where it was less verdant, the princes deduced that the camel was blind to the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road the size of a camel’s tooth, presumably they had fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was clear because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.
The deduction regarding the pregnant rider is more complicated than the rest and is somewhat lewd, so those of a sensitive nature may wish to skip this passage.
“I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman,” said the second brother, “because I had noticed that near the tracks where the animal had knelt down the imprint of a foot was visible. Because some urine was near by, I wet my fingers (in it) and as a reaction to its odour I felt a sort of carnal concupiscence, which convinced me that the imprint was of a woman’s foot.”
“I guessed that the same woman must have been pregnant,” said the third, “because I had noticed nearby handprints which were indicative that the woman, being pregnant, had helped herself up with her hands while urinating.”
It’s all rather far-fetched, of course, but there’s something fascinating about the scientific method used here. There is also an element of teamwork involved, as with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson who remind us that teams work best when they are free to disagree. (Many marriages, my own included, offer plentiful evidence of this!) Several great scientific discoveries were made by two people, where one alone might not have put the serendipitous two and two together. And most people know how apparently unrelated events, when discussed, can lead to fresh insights.
Here’s a humble example. A few days ago I read three WordPress posts back-to-back whose mutual connections set my head spinning. The first called for sustainability to become the new religion, dedicated to our offspring, where blasphemy would be conspicuous consumption and the failure to recycle. The second described how university scientists have determined the best technology to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and try to reverse global warming. It turns out to be trees. The third spoke of a spirit of inquiry which forgets previous knowledge, questions without agenda, listens with openness and curiosity … and suggested tree-climbing as an example of natural investigation teeming with insight and revelation.
Compassion. Learning. Realisation. Only Connect and you can achieve Enlightenment!
Or so I’m told. I do know that time is short. Perhaps we serve (and save) time best by indulging our natural love of serendipity. Language in its widest sense has roots in history and enables us to bring the disparate world together. But things being various, let our legacy be to keep them that way …
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;
My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,
And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.