The etymology of “serendipity”

by on September 2, 2013 at 7:09 am in History, Philosophy | Permalink

The first noted use of “serendipity” in the English language was by Horace Walpole (1717–1797). In a letter to Horace Mann (dated 28 January 1754) he said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”. The name stems from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka (aka Ceylon), from Arabic Sarandib. Parts of Sri Lanka were under the rule of South Indian kings for extended periods of time in history. Kings of Kerala, India (Cheranadu)were called Chera Kings and dheep means island, the island belonging to Chera King was called Cherandeep, hence called Sarandib by Arab traders.

Here is more, and for the pointer I thank Vivian.

1 dead serious September 2, 2013 at 8:49 am

The real takeaway is that for words to be coined, a Horace should be involved. Preferably two.

2 dan1111 September 2, 2013 at 11:52 am

It follows that the decline of the English language can be traced to the name Horace falling out of favor.

3 prior_approval September 2, 2013 at 9:16 am

Another thing first discovered in Clarke’s Fountains Of Paradise, if decades ago recollection is to be trusted.

4 Adrian Ratnapala September 2, 2013 at 11:04 am

I thought the Lanka == Serendib thing was common knowledge. Maybe it only among Lankan fans of A. C. Clarke.

5 Larry Siegel September 2, 2013 at 11:57 pm

It is.

I hate to sound like an old fart, but what can be assumed to be well known decreases with each passing year.

6 Corporate Serf September 2, 2013 at 6:56 pm


Like Adrian, I too thought that Lanka == Serendip was well known.

I also thought the etymology was swarna-dweep (golden island) ==> Sarandip (but that could just be my Indian origin)

7 Tim September 10, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Read the great book by Robert K. Merton for still more:

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