Monday, August 23, 2010
-- Funk & Wagnall's Canadian College Dictionary
"Serendipity" is one of my favourite words to say and one of my favourite surprises to encounter. It moves around in my mouth and my life in such wonderful ways. Until I decided to write about it here, I'd assumed the word was related somehow to "serene" or "serenade," but it isn't.
It was actually coined and then written for the first time by Horace Walpole in 1754. In a letter to Horace Mann, Walpole described his new word and where he got the idea for it. He told Mann about a 16th Century Persian story called The Three Princes of Serendip in which the king sent his royal sons on a journey. Along the way the brothers "were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”
The word has proven so useful and descriptive of common experience that it has been absorbed into many languages. I've experienced serendipity many times myself, and I love the feeling!
One thing I like about Walpole's original definition is that it included not only a happy accident but sagacity, which means "shrewdness and wisdom." That adds a dimension to serendipity I hadn't thought of before.
The happy accident part means that when I'm headed toward a destination with some, or no, goal in mind, I might happen upon unexpected bonuses or brand new discoveries.
The sagacity part means that I would use wisdom and good judgment to string together the factors I already understand with the unexpected treasure.
Here's a small example: One time I was making potato salad and realized, after everything was ready and company was coming and I couldn't get to the store, that I didn't have enough mayonnaise. Groan... But then I saw some plain yogurt in the fridge and thought I'd try that. The sagacity part of this homely event was reasoning that since yogurt and mayo are both creamy white substances, the yogurt might be a decent substitute. The happy accident part was that the combination tasted great and was lower in fat than it would have been if I'd used only mayonnaise. Serendipity!
A bigger example: I was once asked to facilitate a micro-employment program. The job offer came at a good time for me, and I was looking forward to doing the work. The happy accident part came when I learned that I'd be co-facilitating with a former colleague I really liked and respected. The sagacity part came after the end of the program when I evaluated a number of factors and accepted the opportunity to expand our great working relationship into a personal relationship that is still solid and happy ten years later. Marvelous serendipity!