A Happy Naming Accident – It Happened Today, January 28, 2017

Serendipity is a wonderful word. And we owe it to the eccentric Horace Walpole who coined it in a letter on January 28 of 1754. It is a hard word to translate, perhaps because it speaks to an unexpected and obscure but encouraging facet of reality.

Serendipity loosely means a fortunate discovery. Walpole himself, the reviver of Gothic architecture in his Strawberry Hill House and practitioner of Gothic writing in The Castle of Otranto, derived his neologism it from a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, in which the heroes were, Walpole wrote, "always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of". But it doesn’t just mean blind luck.

It means that when people are engaged in a worthy quest, in a suitably hopeful frame of mind, they often come across something even better than they were seeking. It reminds me of a maxim I acquired from an in-law’s publisher (an example, I think, of serendipity in that I was not expecting to gain wisdom at the book launch where it happened) that in life you must be ready to be lucky.

It sounds silly, perhaps. But it depends on the important truth that, except at the extremes, the difference between lucky and unlucky people is far less the mix of good, bad and ugly that fate sends them but their alertness to the good things. "Unlucky" people often fail to notice breaks they aren’t expecting.

In my view serendipity goes further still. It speaks to a certain beneficial substructure to a universe that often seems on the surface to present precisely the paradoxical mix of indifference and hostility that H.P. Lovecraft devoted himself to depicting graphically. And it justifies a joke that comes from the unlikely and superficially undesirable source known as Woody Allen, that life is like two old ladies discussing the food in their retirement residence.

It’s awful, says one, bland, pasty, salty and lukewarm, really just horrible. Yes, sighs the other, and such small portions too.

There really is something good here, although to find it we often need that elusive and surprising quality given such an oddly fitting name by Walpole. Serendipity. It rolls off the tongue and, I hope, into your life.