What is the origin of ‘serendipity’?
The wonderfully onomatopoeic serendipity, which is indeed often chosen as Britons’ favourite English word (alongside nincompoop and discombobulate), means the making of happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.
It was invented by the writer and politician Horace Walpole in 1754 as an allusion to 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 ’.
Incidentally, the original Persian name for Sri Lanka (and in earlier times Ceylon) was Sarandib, a corruption of the Sanskrit Sinhaladvipa which literally meant ‘the island where lions dwell’. Sinhalese, or Sinhala, is still the name of one of Sri Lanka’s national languages, the other being Tamil.
An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent.