Walking to the station the other day I was thinking how annoying it is that, when people are invited to name their favourite words, so many answer serendipity. Then, blow me if the next news report I read didn’t detail an invitation from Education Action, a charity, to send in favourite words to celebrate Literacy Day. (There is such a thing.) ‘The most popular so far,’ said someone involved, ‘are those associated with positive aspirations, like peace, love, and serendipity.’
Yet serendipity is in a different category from peace or love. People might like peace and love, but it’s the sound of serendipity they like. It is like Boris Johnson’s choice: carminative. This does not, as the BBC reported, mean ‘the effects of relieving flatulence’, but ‘promoting the expression of flatulence’. Jonathan Swift wrote the memorable couplet ‘Carminative and diuretic / Will damp all passion sympathetic.’
A character in Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow explains why he had used it in error in a line of poetry that he had written: ‘And passion carminative as wine’. In carminative, he explains, ‘was the idea of singing and the idea of flesh, rose-coloured and warm, with a suggestion of the jollities of mi-Carême and the masked holidays of Venice. Carminative — the warmth, the glow, the interior ripeness were all in the word.’ Then it occurred to him to look it up in a dictionary.
No doubt Boris Johnson knew about Crome Yellow, and about Swift too. But I rather suspect that, even on Literacy Day, many suggestions of favourite words are based on sub-literate prejudices. There is, of course, nothing wrong with being illiterate. Fine poetry has been composed by the illiterate, but that is not, I suspect, the focus of Literacy Day.
The word serendipity was, as we all know, coined by Horace Walpole, as he explained in a letter on 28 January 1754: ‘I once read a silly fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right — now do you understand serendipity?’
Walpole here makes the princes seem like Sherlock Holmes rather than fortunate discoverers of things they were not looking for. But is the accidental aspect of the meaning that has endured, rather than the sagacious.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 22, 2007