The Grammarphobia Blog

The Three Princes of Serendip

Q: My girlfriend met a woman from Mauritius on a recent safari in South Africa and then learned that they had gone to the same college in Boston. We seem to have such encounters every day. Is there a word for this sort of random coincidence or connection?

A: I’m not sure this will fill the bill for you, but how about “serendipity,” a word formed from the old Persian and Arabic names for Sri Lanka?

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines it as the “faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) adds that it’s the “phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”

Horace Walpole, an 18th-century English man of letters, coined the term, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In a 1754 letter, he writes about a discovery that “is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.”

In Walpole’s letter to an English friend living in Florence, he explains that the word was inspired by a “silly fairy tale” called The Three Princes of Serendip.

As the three princes in the Persian story traveled, he says, “they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.”

H-m-m. Sounds a lot like Walpole’s own serendipitous discovery.

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