Are you having fun today?

Lorraine Daston

  • The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science by Robert Merton and Elinor Barber
    Princeton, 313 pp, £18.95, February 2004, ISBN 0 691 11754 3

On 28 January 1754, Horace Walpole coined a pretty bauble of a word in a letter to Horace Mann, apropos of a happy discovery made while browsing in an old book of Venetian heraldry: Mann had just sent him the Vasari portrait of the Grand Duchess Bianca Capello, and Walpole stumbled on the Capello coat of arms. He thought this accident to be no accident, but rather a special talent of his, ‘by which I find everything I want, à point nommé, wherever I dip for it. 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 endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition.’ Walpole had read The Travels and Adventures of Three Princes of Sarendip, a 1557 Italian romance (itself purporting to be a translation from the Persian) that had made it into English via a French translation (pilfered by Voltaire for Zadig) by 1722. The mellifluous ‘Sarendip’ or ‘Serendib’ preceded ‘Ceylon’, which in turn preceded ‘Sri Lanka’, as the ancient name of the South Asian island, redolent for European readers of the exotic Orient. The three princes travel, Rasselas fashion, in search of the wisdom that only experience can provide, having completed an excellent education of the more bookish sort at home. They astonish their hosts along the way with Sherlock-Holmes-like inferences from sharply observed particulars strewn in their path; Walpole’s homegrown example for this sort of ‘accidental sagacity’ was ‘of my Lord Shaftesbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon’s, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table’.

Walpole’s new word did not exactly catch on, or at least not for a good two centuries. His letters to Mann were first published in 1833, and a few antiquarians and literati piqued themselves on knowing the linguistic rarity in the latter half of the century; it first made it into a dictionary in 1909 (and into the OED in the 1912-13 edition). Until the 1950s, it had appeared in print probably only twenty times, and each occurrence was accompanied by a definition that often stretched all the way back to the Walpole citation. Thereafter, however, the popularity of ‘serendipity’ grew steadily, even exponentially. Quite exceptionally for the diffusion of a new word, especially in a language as fertile in novelties as English, it is possible to track who used the word in which context and how these strategic usages generated a kind of linguistic contagion, localised to certain professions and circumstances. One such vector, to continue the epidemiological metaphor, was the Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon, who entitled a chapter of The Way of an Investigator (1945) ‘Gains from Serendipity’; another was the Columbia sociologist of science Robert Merton, who in a 1946 article described the ‘serendipity pattern’ in sociological research. For the next decade or so, ‘serendipity’ (which by then had narrowed its meaning to a pleasing and unexpected discovery made while looking for something else) first spread selectively, among alumni of Harvard Medical School, Columbia-trained sociologists, and research scientists, and then to English-speakers at large. Google ‘serendipity’ and you will be flooded with entries (more than 800,000 of them), many apparently linked more to the music of the word than to its meaning.

Merton (who was himself a gifted minter of new words and phrases, including ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ and ‘focus group’), and Elinor Barber, a historian, set out to chart the picaresque career of ‘serendipity’ in the 1950s, when the word had crossed over from the realm of literary arcana to that of scientific buzzwords, but had not yet begun its steep ascent towards word-of-the-week fame. The perfect moment to publish a monograph that wore its learning lightly, or so one might think. For reasons never completely explained, either in James Shulman’s graceful introduction or in Merton’s gallant afterword, written at 91 after four operations for cancer and with a fifth impending, the manuscript was shelved at Merton’s behest (he mentions Barber’s gracious indulgence on this score) and left untouched for decades. Shulman suggests that in retrospect the manuscript looks like a kind of dress rehearsal for a book Merton did publish, the erudite and elegant On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript (1965), which followed the zigzag fortunes of a quotation made famous by Isaac Newton (‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants’). This may well be true, but it hardly explains Merton’s reluctance to publish an earlier manuscript in the same vein. In 2002, the unrevised manuscript finally made it into print, but in an Italian translation; the English original appeared only in 2004, posthumously for both authors.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in