A Word To That Effect is a new series of bonus mini-episodes about a single word or phrase with a distinctly literary origin. This week, is a 2001 romantic comedy with Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack. It’s a baby clothes shop I passed the other day. It’s a song by the phenomenally successful Korean boyband BTS. It’s a word often associated with unplanned but fortunate scientific discoveries. Yes, it’s serendipity, the word to describe when something happens by chance, in a happy or beneficial way.
This episode is connected to next week’s full episode on the origins of the gothic. Check back next week for more!
I also mentioned the detective episode of the show. That’s right here, if you want to have a listen.
There will be lots of these bonus episodes available exclusively to supporters of the show, so if you’d like to become a member of HeadStuff+, find out more at HeadStuffPodcasts.com
Words To That Effect is a member of the Headstuff Podcast Network. Check out a whole host of great Irish podcasts here
I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect
Stories of the fiction that shapes popular culture
And this is A Word To That Effect, part of a bonus series of mini-episodes, in which I talk about a single, everyday word or phrase, with a distinctly literary origin.
It’s a 2001 romantic comedy with Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack
It’s a baby clothes shop I passed the other day
It’s a word often associated with unplanned but fortunate scientific discoveries
It’s a song by the phenomenally successful Korean boyband BTS
Yes, I’m talking about serendipity: that word to describe when something happens by chance, in a happy or beneficial way.
The word is often associated with chance scientific discoveries – a scientist is trying to find a solution to one problem and accidentally stumbles upon something else entirely, but something which is itself a great discovery.
Penicillin is probably the most famous example, when the bacteriologist Alexander Fleming mistakenly left a petri dish uncovered, and returned to find that a mold had grown on it which had in fact killed lots of the bacteria. That mold was then isolated and became the life-saving antibiotic penicillin.
Almost exactly a century earlier, in 1826, matches were another serendipitous discovery. When John Walker, a British pharmacist, was working on an experimental new paste to use in guns he accidentally realised that when it was dry, it would spark and light when struck. The “friction light” was born, initially with the paste on the end of some cardboard, and later on small pieces of wood. And Walker sold them with great success from his pharmacy.
Side note: and an event which was most certainly not serendipitous: these matches were not the type we know today. Walker didn’t patent his invention and other companies started experimenting with the design. Soon white phosphorus was included in the mix. This is an incredibly toxic material and quickly caused a horrendous, disfiguring disease in match factory workers where their teeth would rot and their lower jaw would become infected and need to be surgically removed.
So how did we get from K-Pop and Hollywood films to the miserable conditions of 19th-century factory workers?
Serendipity. A word that was coined a century earlier again, in 1754. On the 28th January, 1754, to be precise.
We can be that precise because it appears in a letter sent by Horace Walpole, an English politician, antiquarian, and all-round man of letters. In literature he is very much connected with one word in particular: gothic, and his novel The Castle of Otranto is the gothic novel. But I’m not going to say any more about that, or about the fascinating character of Horace Walpole, because it is in fact the topic of the next episode of WTTE.
For now, I want to look at the word “serendipity”, one of many words, in fact, that Walpole coined, but the one which I think most would agree is his best. It’s a great word.
So where does it come from?
Well, Walpole actually took it from a much older story, The Three Princes of Serendip. The story is about three princes who are able to workout exact details of a missing camel, despite having never seen it, using Sherlock Holmes-like inferences. And the reference to the great detective here is relevant too, because this same story was later used by Voltaire in his work Zadig. This, in turn, had an important influence on early detectives with almost superhuman analytical power – such as Edgar Allen Poe’s Auguste Dupin, which in turn influenced Doyle. Would you believe I did a whole episode on this. Have a listen to the Words Dunnit live show to find out all about this.
In Walpole’s case he wrote to his friend about a fortuitous coincidence in which he found a connection between two paintings. The story itself, as Walople admits in the letter, is not particularly interesting, but he uses it as an excuse to tell his correspondent all about his new word:
“This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavor to explain to you”
He goes on then to talk about The Three Princes of Serendip and his use of the word.
I think Walpole would be quite pleased, 268 years later, to have a podcast episode devoted entirely to his very expressive word
And that’s it. Back to regular episodes next week, with plenty of Horace Walpole.
There will be more mini episodes like this in the future, but most of them will be excliusivly for supporters of the show. If you’d like to be one of those, you can join HeadStuff+ and become a member. Go to headstuffpodcasts.com
And before you go, I wanted to play you a quick trailer for a show you might like. You may remember I did an episode about the pop culture history of dinosaurs? Well if my toe in the water wasn’t enough for you and you feel like you could do with a more dinosaurs, then check out I Know Dino
That’s it, thanks, as always, for listening and I’ll see you next week.