Serendipity Strikes Again

When I discovered that a recent photo had captured a fading sunflower petal taking to the air, the image seemed too delightful and too improbable not to share — so I included it on Lagniappe in a post titled “Summer’s Flight.”

Reader Derrick Knight‘s reference to the ‘serendipitous’ nature of the image brought a smile, especially since his use of the word was exactly right. ‘Serendipity,’ a word coined by one of Derrick’s countrymen in the 1700s, refers to something quite different from coincidence or luck, and its history is as interesting as the experiences it seeks to define: experiences which include the unsought; the wholly unexpected; the occasionally fortunate; and the odd as odd can be.

Horace Walpole, the British art historian and man of letters who coined serendipity,  seems to have been a bit of an oddity himself. In his introduction to Walpole’s Hieroglyphic Tales, Thomas Christensen describes Walpole as an exemplar of a particular British tradition: one distinguished by “absurdity, ridicule, wordplay, wit, wickedness, and just plain madness.”

Beyond question, Walpole had a vibrant imagination and a taste for high jinks. When not busy shepherding tourists through Strawberry Hill, his home outside London, he wrote volumes of letters.  One of his most famous, a 1765 letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau — presumably written after Rousseau fled persecution in Geneva and took up residence in France — was a fake.

Purported to have been written by King Frederick of Prussia, the letter offered Rousseau asylum-with-a-twist. Among other things, the faux King Frederick promised, “I will cease to persecute you as soon as you cease to take pride in being persecuted.”

Apparently never suspecting Walpole’s authorship, Rousseau first attributed the letter to Voltaire. Later, he suspected his friend David Hume had sent it; in time, the letter played a role in a spectacular falling out between Hume and Rousseau.

When he wasn’t stirring up trouble, Walpole amused himself by renovating Strawberry Hill, which he deemed a “Gothic mousetrap” of a house.  Like most collectors, he wanted others to admire his treasures, and Strawberry Hill was the perfect showcase.

Walpole often “gave personal tours to posh visitors, but left his housekeeper to herd the hoi polloi for a guinea a tour.”  Despite producing a guidebook to the place, Walpole eventually wearied of the numbers of guests traipsing through its halls. “Never build yourself a house between London and Hampton Court,” Walpole said. “Everyone will live in it but you.”

Strawberry Hill

Still, he loved his home, with all of its “papier-mâché friezes, Gothic-themed wallpaper, fireplaces copied from medieval tombs, Holbein chambers evoking the court of Henry VIII, Dutch blue and white floor tiles, modern oil paintings, china, and carpets.”  Some postulate that Walpole created Strawberry Hill as a visual analogue to his writing. As Walpole himself once said:

­Visions always have been my pasture. Old castles, old pictures, old histories, and the babble of old ­people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint.

Michael Snodin, ­curator of the Walpole exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, once suggested that Walpole’s cultural legacy was “to pioneer a kind of imaginative self–expression in building, furnishing and collecting,” but his  fixation on the house and its furnishings didn’t exclude other interests. Much of Walpole’s “imaginative self-expression” was centered on language. Today, his extraordinarily useful word serendipity  has become familiar to nearly everyone, and he surely would be pleased by the increased use of the word and its derivatives.

Writing to Horace Mann in 1754, Walpole first defined the word as “a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something else.” He said he’d derived the word from the title of a Persian fairy tale titled The Three Princes of Serendip, a story in which the heroes “always were making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

In his retelling of the Sinbad saga, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor,  John Barthes makes the point that,”You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere, and lose your bearings in the process.”

But it’s worth noting that Walpole’s ‘serendipity’ was far more than lost bearings or accidental discovery. Sagacity — the ability to link apparently unrelated, innocuous, or irrelevant facts — was equally important. Seeing what others have missed is one thing. Realizing what we’ve seen is quite another; it may require time, and patient thought.

This much is certain. A willingness to lose our bearings now and then, and an ability to incorporate accidental or unexpected encounters of any sort into the narrative of our lives, adds vibracy and interest to our days. Two and a half centuries later, Walpole’s most important legacy for our constricted and fearful time may be his conviction that the unsought; the wholly unexpected; the occasionally fortunate; and the remarkably odd are to be celebrated rather than feared.


Comments always are welcome.

90 thoughts on “Serendipity Strikes Again

  1. A few years ago when I was looking for a verb to describe the way I keep house and home, including all the cleaning, gardening, decorating, sewing, cooking, etc etc, I found the word serendipity captured my non-methodical style, and coined it as a good description of what my days look like: serendipping.

    I don’t have occasion to talk about this much, but the word has been coming to mind a lot lately — whenever I am not distracted by gadding about and can pay attention to my surroundings and discoveries.

    1. ‘Serendipity’ usually comes to my mind when I am gadding about: happily following the road I intended to take before giving in to an impulse to take that road instead. More often than I used to imagined, a serendipitous discovery makes the inexplicable change more than worthwhile. Of course, the same has been true with each of my career changes, too. I never would have imagined that a friend’s 40th birthday party sail in 1987 would lead me to this day, but so it did.

    2. A sudden revelation: ‘serendipping’ is the perfect word to describe the behavior of shorebirds probing the sand for tidbits. Every time they ‘dip,’ there’s the chance they’ll come upon an especially nice treat!

  2. You led me again online to find out more. If one lives in a house like that, how can he know if a tour is being given? If I were a tourist, I wouldn’t dare raise my voice or shout in pain from kicking my little toe on a chair leg.

    1. It’s hard enough to deal with a few potential buyers traipsing through a house when it’s on the market. On the other hand, since Walpole was such a collector, and loved to show off his acquisitions, the crowds probably were a good news/bad news situation for him.
      It would be hard to tour a place like that without gawking!

    1. Exactly. Sometimes, I’ve called it ‘intuitive planning.’ In retrospect, the most significant turning points in my life weren’t obvious at the time, and occasionally it took years for the full significance to be revealed, but ‘serendipity’ was the dynamic.

  3. Yes, I would like to be permanently in a country named serendipity and be surprised all the time. Mind you, on my walks around this place I still get surprised by what I hear and see. It never stops.

    1. We’ll make you an honorary Prince of Serendip, Gerard. This much is certain; after a few decades on this earth, we both know how many surprises are possible. Who knows what the next one will be?

  4. Thank you so much for the history lesson and the WWW … wonderfully woven words.
    I’ve not been commenting much lately, but I always read, and enjoy, your entries.

    Serendipity to me means finding a new recipe to try when looking for something else, or opening a drawer to find the long lost scarf/jumper etc, you thought had been sent to the charity shop!

    1. Your mention of the scarf brought a laugh. I once searched for a ‘lost’ book for three years, until finding it on a bookshelf — right where it belonged. Who knows how such blindness develops?

      One of the most interesting exhibits arranged by Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts was Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House. I was able to attend, and it was fascinating. It included a handwritten manuscript produced by Horace Walpole. I was relieved to learn that Horace wasn’t the grandson who sold so many of Houghton Hall’s treasures to Catherine the Great.

      I’ve been thinking of you recently, thanks to the political/economic news coming out of your country. I’m all for women in government, but of course it needs to be the right woman!

      1. Personally, I don’t think she’ll be in power very long!
        Thank goodness for the new Chancellor she has appointed. He is old school, and very well known to the country. Her first chancellor, who was only in power for 39 days, was someone we didn’t know. It was his budget plans that rattled the markets, but luckily, after the ‘u-turn’ this morning, they have rallied.

  5. There is the general “serendipity” and there is the specific “serendoogle”, which is finding something neat while googling for something else. I wonder if there is a vague relationship to the Columbus method, going east by sailing west?

    1. One of the articles I read about the nature of serendipitous discoveries mentioned both Columbus and Galileo, so others have seen that relationship. As for ‘serendoogle,’ another phrase for that probably is ‘down the rabbit hole.’ When one thing leads to another…and another…and… there’s no telling where we’ll end up.

    1. It is interesting, isn’t it? What’s even more fascinating is how far and wide the word spread even before the arrival of the internet, memes, and so on. Part of the explanation may be that the experience of serendipity is so common, everyone who came across the word recognized its truth and usefulness immediately.

    1. And thank you for revivifying my interest in the word and its history, Derrick. Now that I’ve finally posted here, again, maybe I can revivify my writing as well as my photography!

    1. Walpole is one of those historical characters I wish I could meet. I suspect we could have an enjoyable afternoon, just playing with words. You can come, too!

    1. I miss the vibrant autumn trees, but on the other hand — it’s easy to ‘take a drive to look at the leaves,’ but it takes a little more effort to search for and examine the flowers. Of course, in the process of searching, there’s no telling what we’ll come across — like my flying sunflower petal.

    1. Thanks, Eliza. It’s always fun to get a peek into the lives of people from earlier centuries, especially when they’re as interesting and quirky — and funny — as Walpole was.

  6. Your exploration of the meaning of serendipity made me aware of the many crossroads of my life that I would describe as significant moments of serendipity, of which meeting my future wife in 1962 was the most unexpected, least sought at the time.

    1. It can take time for the full significance of events to be revealed, but as it happens, we often realize that ‘serendipity’ is exactly the right word to describe those events. What a great thing Walpole did by providing us not only the word, but a perfect definition.

    1. I had fun with the research and writing, Tina. Walpole’s such an interesting fellow, and his word was a terrific creation. I suspect nearly everyone’s used it from time to time.

  7. Serendipity, unexpected juxtapositions, hidden images, a musician letting an improvisation go flying, a really great twist in a story, heck, surprises of all kinds, really light up the day. Sometimes spending a rainy afternoon in a big library, just pulling out a couple of books at random, can help knock you out of a rut and come up with new ideas, maybe come up with a new solution to some knotty problem. So glad you posted this, Linda, very fun.

    1. We’ve all experienced it, and if we’re lucky, more than once. Sometimes the changes wrought are dramatic, and sometimes they’re merely pleasurable or intriguing. No matter. It’s the change in direction that counts, and whatever bit of serendipity it is that sideswipes us, it’s usually all to the good. Glad you enjoyed the post; it was great fun to put together.

    1. Thanks, John. ‘Word-lens’ is a terrific image. Any word can be a lens for examining life more closely; there’s not an emoji in the world that can do that.

  8. This post just sparkled, much like the glint of a random agate serendipitously catching the sun while I’m walking by, or the sighting of a slender, white bloom in the lee of sheltering bush or the discovering of the gardening shears I’d left in a pile of leaves a couple of days ago.
    Walpole, Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton come to mind as people that would be great fun to meet, and if they deigned, carry on a conversation! Biography is a much needed, wondrous profession.

    1. Your list of potential conversation partners is a good one. I’d add Twain, Alexander Humboldt, Flannery O’Connor, and Faulkner to the list. It just occurred to me that, on my ‘About’ page list of favorites, I listed ‘good conversation’ as my favorite sport.

      One reason I enjoy the letters and journals of historical figures is for the insight they allow into them as people rather than as icons. Good biographies can do it, too, but there’s nothing like working with primary sources. And we shouldn’t forget that there can be ‘biographies’ of places. William Least Heat-Moon’s plunge into the heart of Chase County, Kansas — PrairyErth is a gem.

    1. I hope you were a little amused, too. Walpole was such a character. It wasn’t a fit for this post, but one of the interesting things about him is that he’s considered to have written the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764). Given that the architecture of Strawberry Hill was considered Gothic, he must have been a real fan of the style.

  9. I have never taken the time to look up the origin of this word but am thankful that for the many years I have been using it, I have been using it correctly. Whew.
    Serendipity reminds me of the Hindu concept of the Subtle World, that place between the material and the transcendent. Most all serendipity for me has occurred when I am acutely aware that I am in the Subtle World and it’s always a split second. And by the way, Happy Birthday, Linda. I know it’s coming up soon.

    1. A minute ago, I looked up the etymology of the word, and learned that “Serendip, (also Serendib), attested by 1708 in English, is an old name for Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka); from Arabic Sarandib, from Sanskrit Simhaladvipa, or”Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island.” So there’s your connection to the Hindu concept. Serendipity!

      Thanks for the birthday wishes! There’s a marina, flounder, and key lime pie waiting to be part of a celebration.

  10. Discovery can be a matter of being open to finding something you weren’t looking for. You can be so intent in a search that you aren’t open to an accidental encounter. Thanks for introducing me to Walpole, he was just a name to me before.

    1. On the internet, there’s a time to search and a time to browse. The same holds for life. In a way, it’s analogous to the very broad division of sailors into racers and cruisers. I’m a cruiser at heart, and with my camera I’m a browser. My role model’s the bear who went over the mountain; I go out to see what I can see.

      Walpole dropped out of Cambridge, was friends with and traveled with the poet Thomas Gray, and wrote what’s considered the first Gothic novel. It all fits!

  11. I like serendipity. It feels good when it happens. I think it comes more often to a well-prepared mind. Walpole’s mind seems to have fit that.

    1. A well-prepared mind, but also a receptive one that’s willing to let go of some preconceptions about what’s around the next corner or down the next road.

      I’ve been pondering the relationship between Walpole’s understanding of sagacity — “the ability to link apparently unrelated, innocuous, or irrelevant facts” — and pareidolia: the tendency to perceive specific images in ambiguous visual patterns, like clouds. I wouldn’t be surprised if some grad student somewhere hasn’t produced a paper on the subject.

  12. Every time, I set out for someplace, hoping that I will arrive someplace else, I always wind up at my original destination. Should I shut my gps off or simply give up hope?

    In other words, I fear my muse has abandoned me.

    1. My advice? Toss the GPS and fire that muse. Depend on yourself for inspiration, and wander without maps until it feels like second nature. I’ll grant that there’s a time for Point A to Point B travel, but, in truth, those times are fewer than most of us think.

      I know. Quirky. But fun.

  13. Another fascinating etymological essay!

    I would never have guessed “serendipity” was manufactured and has no apparent ancient Greek, Latin or Persian root. Oh, the stuff we learn!

    There are so many examples in each of our lives to which we can apply serendipity as the cause. Gini and I typically explore with no actual “goal” in mind. Rather, let’s go see what we can see.

    Surprise! The more often we go somewhere, the more often we find “something” unique and interesting. Whether it is serendipity, coincidence, sagacity or a happy accident, we embrace it with amazement and joy.

    Thank you, Linda, for an amazing read which shall lead to discussion and further research by more than just this one reader.

    1. It’s fascinating that while slang words and phrases come and go — seemingly at the speed of light — ‘serendipty’ has endured from the moment Walpole came up with it. While reading about the three princes of Serendip, I learned that Serendip is an old name for Ceylon: now Sri Lanka. Between his historical/literary grounding and the fact that Walpole was clever enough to come up with a word for a recognizable human experience, it makes sense that his word would still be with us. No emoji is going to have such staying power.

      As for wandering, even when there’s a general ‘goal,’ surprises await. One of my favorite photos shows an expansive field of bluebonnets that I found last spring. I’d gone out to find our typical wildflowers — especially the bluebonnets. Lo and behold, when I found that ‘best’ field, right in the middle was one brilliant white bluebonnet: serendipity at its finest.

    1. Thanks, June. History’s filled with interesting characters, and Walpole certainly was one. That said, there aren’t many people who leave a word as a legacy; I love that.

  14. Walpole sounds like QUITE a character! I’d love to visit Strawberry Hill sometime.

    I’ve always loved the word (and concept of) serendipity. I thought I had probably used it in my blog, so I checked and found four posts. You can read them here if you want, but this one in particular struck me. It’s the first Christmas Poem that we wrote & sent out in Christmas cards – in 1992. Apparently my love affair with serendipity has been going on for quite some time!

    1. I really liked the use of serendipity in your 18 days of Christmas poem. It’s such a useful word: perfect for everyday use, and for special occasions. I can’t remember when I first learned the word, but as soon as I came across it, and its definition, I started recognizing instances of it. The more the better, say I.

      Here’s one peek into Strawberry Hill. As I was listening to the narration, I was surprised to learn that one of the treasures that was sold from the house turned up in a museum here in Houston, and will be returned to Walpole’s collection at the house.

      1. Oh my goodness – now I DEFINITELY want to go! What a fascinating place! A bit opulent for regular folk, but it’s always interesting to see how the rich lived.

  15. I’m always amazed by the evolution of the English language, the invention of new words tracing the innovation and imagination of its speakers. Thanks for bringing the story of Walpole and Serendipity into our lives. Have you looked at the Google Ngram Viewer? It charts the use of English words since before 1800, based on analysis of Google Books. “Serendipity” has taken off in meteoric flight since about 1930. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed all the contributions of your readers who left comments, and your replies – wonderful seeing how all these creative minds think!

    1. I use the Ngram Viewer from time to time; it’s quite a useful tool. I was amused when I did a search for ‘serendipity’ and ‘serendip.’ Look at this — . I’d bet that the reading public had a brief fling with The Three Princes of Serendip! And, as you say, once ‘serendipity’ began getting around, people really did like it.

  16. Yes, yes, “a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something else.” I am good at that and wish more people could embrace the idea. I tire of people who live and breath by their to-do lists. And are so into “debits on the left, credits on the right” that they never see the mysteries in front of them. I can’t change people but I can show them through my example how to live a more serendipitous life.

    1. Sometimes all we can do is model a different way of being in the world. Along with your to-do lists and balance sheets, of course, there are the five-year (or ten-year, or twenty-year) plans. Goals are good, and dedication is good, but sometimes it’s the 90 degree turn that makes sense. I’ve always thought that Woody Allen got it right when he said, “The longest journeys begin with a single step, but the best journeys begin with a moment of temporary insanity.”

  17. Serendipity is one of my favorite words and has been for a long time. Just as I think “there are no coincidences,” I believe that serendipity is a gift and a way to live. Fab post!

    1. Wouldn’t it be fun to meet the fellow who coined such a terrific word? I’ve wondered from time to time what serendipitous experiences Walpole himself might have had. There surely were some; otherwise, I don’t think he would have so aptly made the jump from the old tale to his new word.

  18. I liked your connection between the flower and the folly. A rose I like was named after the house, although any rose would pale into insignificance in these settings. But the merest hint of politics is enough to make most British people wince in the current climate.

    1. I confess I smiled when I came across the recent mention of lettuce in your papers. It occurred to me that it could have made another amusing addition to your list of ‘greens’ — although the less said about all that, the better. It’s interesting that a rose was named after the house. To be perfectly honest, in a forced choice between the house and the flower, I probably would choose the flower. The older I get, the more simplicity I prefer.

  19. With plans to read your post more carefully, but glancing at the two photos, it’s remarkable how different they are. The second of a very orderly Strawberry Hill seems almost the antithesis of serendipity.

    1. Actually, Strawberry Hill is a perfect representation of Walpole’s devotion to all things Gothic. He invented the word ‘serendipity,’ but he wrote the first Gothic novel, and the house was designed to highlight some of his interests that lay in that direction. At one time, the house had fallen into disrepair, but as luck would have it, Walpole had created sketches of everything in it, as well as its architecture, so it made restoration much easier.

  20. “You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere, and lose your bearings in the process.” That certainly describes some of my more interesting and fulfilling experiences in life! But I so appreciate your comment that one has to be on the lookout, and able to make connection. I suppose, paradoxically, one has to be ready to be surprised.

    1. Receptivity is key, I think: as well as a cultivated ability to see connections where none is obvious. Beyond that, it’s worth remembering that the improbable isn’t the same as the impossible!

    1. It certainly surprised me when I finally took a look at it on the computer. It was another reminder never to delete a photo ‘in camera’ without having a closer look.

    1. And look at that little ‘bump’ just before 1880. That surely must be related to Walpole or his writings. Perhaps something got published, or reviewed favorably.

  21. Drat and Rats! If I had been staying up with things I would have known to wish you a happy birthday yesterday. At least I am only one day belated. I hope it was a lovely one.

    As a fellow nature photographer you have experienced the same sort of serendipity that I do when not looking for anything specific out in the field. Or even when we are looking, if we don’t have blinders on it can present itself and sometimes even bites us on the butt. And if we don’t put “Beans in our ears” we might have serendipitous aural discoveries.

    1. Thanks for the birthday wishes. The day itself was quiet, although I celebrated with friends on Saturday down on Galveston Island. It was a gorgeous day, and entirely enjoyable.

      I haven’t heard that song in forever. I think I remember it from a time even before it became ‘popular’ — great fun.

  22. Serendipity… I haven’t heard that in so long I forgot about it. This is a well-written post for sure. I guess it is serendipitous when I am wildflower hunting and stumble upon a new one I haven’t seen or heard of before. I kind of like that word. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Serendipity’s a great word, and a terrific experience when it happens. Your example of finding a new wildflower while hunting for “whatever” is exactly right. I love those times; it’s always fun to find something new. It’s one reason I often go prowling like the bear who went over the mountain; I just want to see what I can see!

  23. Your sunflower photo is serendipitous! It’s not often to get a picture like that. Love it.
    When I lived in New York, my friend and I once went to Serendipity for coffee and dessert. My goodness that was so long ago but I remember that it was a super cold evening.

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