Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

The sound of serendipity

with 5 comments

Horace Walpole: word coiner and frill fan

Where was I? Oh, yes: serendipity.

The Wordwatch Towers inbox has recently been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of an email asking me to explain the origins of this lovely word (which means making a happy and unexpected accidental discovery).

The butler (at a loose end since my reader Gladys went to Devon to help celebrate her sister’s 86th) immediately dusted down Oxford Dictionaries online and discovered a rather lovely snippet.

walpole horace gothic B20114 47The word was coined in 1754 by the English writer and politician Horace Walpole, well known in his day as the author of The Castle of Otranto, widely regarded as the first Gothic novel.

Walpole used the word serendipity in his correspondence, having based it on The Three Princes of Serendip, a Persian fairy tale (Horace called it ‘silly’) in which the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’. You can read more about this on the Oxford Dictionaries blog.

Hmm …

Here comes the hmm … as you know, I am not one to nitpick (ahem), but there’s a first time for everything. The Oxford Dictionaries blog post referred to above describes the word serendipity as ‘wonderfully onomatopoeic’. Is it?

Doesn’t ‘onomatopoeic’ mean words like ‘buzz’ and ‘bang’ and hiss’ – words based on the sound they describe? Does serendipity sound like the – er – sound of happy chance discoveries? I don’t fink so.

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Written by Wordwatch

21/07/2016 at 9:50 pm

5 Responses

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  1. It does sound a bit unlikely that a word for such an abstract concept could be onomatopoeic 🙂

    squirrelbasket

    22/07/2016 at 9:13 am

    • Hello 🙂 so nice to see you here. I’m glad you agree – I thought maybe I was missing something.

      Wordwatch

      22/07/2016 at 7:06 pm

  2. I shall have to fink about that …

    John Looker

    22/07/2016 at 1:53 pm


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