Serendipity: a word coined in January 1754


Serendipity means the making of happy and unexpected discoveries by accident

The word  was coined in January 1754 by Horace Walpole, (son of Britain’s first  Prime Minister, Robert Walpole) , who used it in a letter to  a friend.  He formed it from the Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip,” whose heroes, he said, “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

Serendip, was  the original Persian name for Sri Lanka (in earlier times Ceylon ), from Arabic Sarandib, a corruption of the Sanskrit Sinhaladvipa which literally meant ‘the island where lions dwell’.

The Three Princes of Serendip  is one of the earliest detective stories, which  tells of how three princes track down a missing camel through luck, good fortune and  forensic deduction. They identify  a lot of details of the animal , even if they have never seen it, among the fact that it is lame in one leg, blind in one eye, and with a missing tooth.

One aspect of Walpole’s original definition of serendipity is the need for an individual to be “sagacious” enough to link together apparently innocent facts in order to come to a valuable conclusion.

In the history of scientific innovation there are various examples of serendipity, such as the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming  in 1928, the invention of the  microwave oven by Percy Spencer  in 1945, and the invention of the Post-it note by Spencer Silver  in 1968.

In June 2004  a British translation company voted the word to be one of the ten most difficult English  words  to translate

Ten years after that  letter Walpole wrote the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, launching   the Gothic genre.  ‘Horace’ Walpole wasn’t actually his name , which was Horatio (he was the first cousin of the grandmother of Lord Horatio Nelson).



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