Little Bits of History

Words and More Words

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 28, 2013


January 28, 1754: Horace Walpole coins a new word, serendipity, in a letter to Horace Mann. Walpole, author and cousin to Lord Nelson, wrote to a fellow Englishman then residing in Florence, Italy. Walpole referred to a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip and their fortuitous discoveries. He went on to explain how these accidental discoveries were, in fact, a perfect example of “serendipity” thus creating the new word meaning “accidental sagacity.”

English is the third most spoken tongue in the world. There are about 1.8 billion people who speak it either as a first or second language. Languages are living things; they grow and change over time. Words are added or lost and meanings are altered with time and place. Words enter the vocabulary in various ways. They are brought in from another language such as chaise lounge from the French. They are proper nouns that turn into common nouns, such as the trademarked Kleenex and the name Mrs. Malaprop from her role in a play where her constant misuse of words eventually led to the term malapropism entering the language meaning a Freudian slip, another example.

Words sometimes originate as acronyms such as LASER, RADAR, and SONAR. Backronyms are words that are given meaning after the word is chosen such as Yahoo, Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle. Words enter via science, literature, politics, commerce, as well as pop culture. There are web sites that keep track of new usages of words. For example, spider, the insect, became spider, a bot that ran across the web searching for items to display in a list, such as a Google search.

Some neologisms, or new words, have a meteoric rise and then crash and burn into oblivion. Other words enter slowly and become part of the mainstream language. The life cycle of a word may follow a course of instability (new, used by few people or a subculture), diffused (spreading but not yet widespread), stable (gaining recognition and probably lasting inclusion), and finally dated (not only no longer new, but heading toward cliché). Both Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss enlivened their stories with abundant words not found in any dictionary – at the time they were written. It might be fun to let The Lorax read Jabberwocky.

“Serendipity. Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for.” – Lawrence Block

“Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer’s daughter.” – Julius Comroe Jr.

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’, but ‘That’s funny …'” – Isaac Asimov

“Yesterday’s neologisms, like yesterday’s jargon, are often today’s essential vocabulary.” – Academic Instincts

This article first appeared at in 2010. Editor’s update: Horace Walpole, or Haratio Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford was born in 1717, the youngest son of British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. He was educated at Bexley, Eton College, and King’s College. While in Cambridge, his religious views became far more skeptical and he developed an aversion to superstition and bigotry. His mother died when he was twenty and he was bereft. He never married although he did carry on some serious “flirtations” with unmarriageable women. His sexual orientation has been debated and although contemporaries classified him as somewhat effeminate, most consider him to be asexual rather than homosexual. He is most remembered today for the Gothic Revival villa he built, beginning in 1749. The house is known by the name of Strawberry Hill.

Also on this day: Beautiful Snow – In 1887, the largest snowflake on record was found.
Lighting the Night – In 1807, the first street was lit by gas light.
Challenged – In 1986, the Challenger exploded.

One Response

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  1. Bobby Dias said, on January 28, 2013 at 10:40 am

    I have only heard of “serendipity” being a state that a person tries for and attains on purpose never by accident. Maybe in the fictional story he used it as an accidental occurence but in real life “serendipity” has been sought out and attained before this one person.

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