Monthly Archives: March 2020

Merton & Barber on Serendipity

Today’s “word book” is Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber’s The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A study in sociological semantics and the sociology of science (2004), a true gem of a book and one of the few on my shelves that is concerned with a single word and its connections. (The F Word is another, and we’ll get there eventually).

I wish I could remember when I first encountered ‘serendipity’, but it’s been with me for a long time as a personal leitmotiv, as I’ve wandered from thing to thing, notion to notion, idea to idea over the years. There’s a succession of factoids that piles up as one explores serendipity: the term was coined by Horace Walpole, in a letter to his friend Horace Mann in 1754; it is derived from or references a folk/fairy story of Three Princes of Serendib, the narrative line of which follows their fortuitous discoveries/inferences. Serendipity has come to mean discovery of the unexpected while in search of something else.

Of course, there’s much more to the story, and Merton & Barber are superb guides. I’ll include here a few bits of detail to whet the reader’s interest.

The 1754 letter from Walpole to Mann is redolent of 18th century epistolary prose (you can almost hear the scratching of the quill pen), and of essence of Walpole’s whimsy:

…This discovery I made by a talisman, which Mr. Chute calls the sortes Walpolianae, by which I find everything I want, à point nommée [at the very moment], 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 endeavor to explain to you; you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called the three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents 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 traveled 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? One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description) was of my lord Shaftsbury, 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.

It’s basic dictionary knowledge that ‘Serendip’ refers to Sri Lanka/Ceylon. But, says the etymologically curious, why Serendip/b? There’s a whole section of Merton & Barber that traces the history of dictionary definitions of ‘serendipity’ and includes this from the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1909 supplement&mdashthe first dictionary definition of ‘serendipity’):

…the name of Serendib figures in Eastern romance. The name is from Ar. Serendib, Sarandib also Sarandip (LL: Serendivi, pl., as the name of the people), MGr. Skt. Sinhala-dvipa, the island of Ceylon… The Skt. Simhala is in Pali Sihalan, whence Silan, Old Tamil Ilan, whence the Malay Sailan, European Seilan, Zeilon, Ceylon… The happy faculty or luck, of finding by “accidental sagacity” interesting items of information or unexpected proofs of one’s theories; discovery of thing unsought: a factitious word humorously invented by Horace Walpole…

Clearly more than one wanted to know, and yet full of delicious nubbins. ‘Factitious’, say Merton & Barber “is well on its way to becoming a pejorative word, growing out of its meaning of ‘artificial’ and ‘unnatural’…” Elsewhere, Merton & Barber note that

In the early years of the twentieth century, a shop was opened in London to cater to those very bibliophiles who wanted “out-of-the-way books,” books by not-so-well-known authors at rather moderate prices. The first mention we have found of it comes, not surprisingly perhaps, in the form of a query in Notes and Queries… in 1903, one John Hebb writes: “A shop has recently opened at No. 118 Westbourne Grove, with the extraordinary name of ‘Serendipity Shop.” What is the meaning of ‘Serendipity’? I may add that the shop appears to be intended for the sale of rare books, pictures, and what Mrs. Malaprop (was it Mrs. Malaprop?) calls ‘articles of bigotry and virtue.’

Among the hares started by this nubbin is the pointer to Notes and Queries,

…a long-running quarterly scholarly journal that publishes short articles related to ‘English language and literature, lexicography, history, and scholarly antiquarianism’. Its emphasis is on ‘the factual rather than the speculative’. The journal has a long history, having been established in 1849 in London; it is now published by Oxford University Press. The journal was originally subtitled ‘a medium of inter-communication for literary men, artists, antiquaries, genealogists, etc’. It is now subtitled ‘For readers and writers, collectors and librarians’. Its motto was once ‘When found, make a note of’, the catchphrase of Capt. Cuttle, a character in Dickens’ Dombey and Son…

Wikisource has a portal to’s 1849-1922 holdings, to be explored on Rainy Days…

So many other facets of Merton & Barber draw one’s attention. Merton wrote On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript in 1965 (a thrice-marvelous analysis of the reach of that titular phrase ascribed to Isaac Newton but at least as old as Diego de Estella [Latin: Didacus Stella], a 16th-century Spanish Franciscan mystic and theologian), known as ‘OTSOG’ in some circles: “part parody, part history of ideas, and part sociology of science” as the back-cover blurb has it). In a footnote in that book he mentions The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity as “a carefully unpublished” manuscript. The Introduction tantalizes us thus:

Sometime in or before 1945, while looking for the definition of some now-forgotten word in volume 9 of The Oxford English Dictionary, Merton’s eye “happened upon the strange looking but euphonious word ‘serendipity.’ Just as Walpole wrote of his habit of playing a sortes Walpolianae, a random flip of the page led Merton to serendipity. It was, when Merton originally stumbled upon it, a strange beast pacing restlessly within the confines of a few learned vocabularies. Had he not chosen to spend a significant portion of his third-year graduate student stipend on the then twelve massive volumes of the OED, he might not have ever stumbled on the word. Had he heeded the call of whatever his pledged mission was that day—learning about sequestration or seraphim or sepulcher—this sociological tale of the wanderings of serendipity would have been stalled, ensnared in the maze of the dictionary, imprisoned from further adventures until some other wandering eye might find it and send it on its way.

As Merton himself notes in the Preface, the book was written in the 1950s, but first appeared in print only in 2002, in Italian. The Princeton University Press version in English appeared in 2004, with a magnificent Afterword by Merton (“Autobiographic reflections on The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity”). Merton died in 2003, and Barber in 1999.

Collateral Language

I awoke thinking of a mode of language and rhetoric that is ubiquitous in political discourse and especially in parlous times. The words that came to me were: self-serving, mollification, deception, bamboozlement, Buncombe. Which of my word books address this realm?

Word books live in temporal and spatial contexts. The two-word phrases of Grenville Kleiser’s Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases echo the world of the book’s publication in 1917, and part of their charm and bite is that they are slightly outside of the current vernacular, but not so far removed that we can’t grasp their messages and apply them to our 21st century concerns and sensibilities.

In November 2003 I did a consultation gig on the GIS program at St. Lawrence University in uppermost New York—flew to Ottawa (the nearest airport), drove a rental car to Canton NY, spent a couple of days talking with faculty and staff, wrote a report. While in Canton I (of course) wandered into the college bookstore and found the just-published Collateral Language: A User’s Guide to America’s New War (edited by John Collins and Ross Glover), which presents short essays (“written to expose the tyranny of political rhetoric used to justify ‘America’s New War’.”) on 14 concepts that were especially of interest in those early years of the War in Iraq, after the shocks of September 11, 2001:

Anthrax, Blowback, Civilization versus Barbarism, Cowardice, Evil, Freedom, Fundamentalism, Jihad, Justice, Targets, Terrorism, Unity, Vital Interests, The War on _____

Most of those will resonate with anybody who was watching and listening in the early years of the 21st century. Collateral Language can be read as a gauge of the Emperor’s Raiment of that time, and of the modes of speech and rhetoric deployed in mass media.

U.S. officials, like their counterparts in decades past, attempted to generate public support for their actions by appealing to ideas as powerful as they are abstract: freedom, civilization, terrorism, evil. This language needs interrogation wherever it is found… Language, like terrorism,targets civilians and generates fear in order to effect political change… a specific type of fearfulness emerges, both intentionally and unintentionally… The use of specific kinds of language for political purposes exists within a long historical lineage of human development, and in order to understand any political system, we must understand the meaning created by that system. Rather than blindly accepting the meaning, usage, and truth of political leaders and news stories, we have an obligation, as citizens of a democratic state, to question, critique, and understand the language given to us by those who claim to represent our interests… (from the Introduction)

Manufacturing Consent … What You Hear Is What You See …

From Ross Glover’s “The War on _____”:

Fill in the blank. Regardless of what word you insert, the American public understands. U.S. presidents learned this lesson well over the past 40 [now almost 60…] years. “The War on _____” plays on our competitive heartstrings like a football cheer. “Yes,” we seem to respond, “fight the good fight, O fearless President, fight the war for us, fight the war for the good of humanity, but most importantly just fight.”

Poverty, Drugs, Terrorism, the “Chinese Virus”…

What Goes Around Comes Around.

Idea du jour

I have a LOT of “word books”: dictionaries, glossaries, usage manuals, specialized lexicons, etymologies, slang, commentaries on how she is spoke… This seems to be the moment to consider that trove, that tranche of my home library, and to put it to work.

This thought arose as I was exploring my mountain of Kindle texts and happened upon

Grenville Kleiser
Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases: A Practical Handbook of Pertinent Expressions, Striking Similes, Literary, Commercial, Conversational, and Oratorical Terms, for the Embellishment of Speech and Literature, and The Improvement of the Vocabulary of Those Persons Who Read, Write, and Speak English

which can be downloaded via Project Gutenberg and, in another form, via LibriVox (e.g., )

and there’s even a 10 hour YouTube video of a Dramatic Reading:

The tipping point for me was glancing at a page of Kleiser’s phrases and seeing that just about every one I looked at was somehow relevant to the Moment we find ourselves in:

abandoned hope
abated pride
abbreviated visit
abhorred thraldom
abiding romance
abject submission
abjured ambition
able strategist
abnormal talents
abominably perverse
abounding happiness
abridged statement
abrogated law
abrupt transition
absolutely irrevocable
absorbed reverie
abstemious diet
…and so on

And so I found myself thinking about Boccaccio’s Decameron which, if you didn’t already know, consists of “…100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city…” in the 14th century.

…and bethought myself that there might be a Decamoron which collects dumb-ass commentary and jokes about the present straits; and a Decamiron for ironic commentary on the same; and perhaps others (Decamuron might be the tales of mice… etc.)

Anyway, I’m thinking to begin a Project to blog a dictionary-a-day (or maybe not quite so often), with a scanned page showing a particularly wonderful something from that volume, and providing some context for what each dictionary/word book is actually good for.


ANYTHING Rebecca Solnit writes is worth attention, worth reading. I’ve just finished listening to this one:

Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir

Amazon blurb:

An electric portrait of the artist as a young woman that asks how a writer finds her voice in a society that prefers women to be silent

In Recollections of My Nonexistence, Rebecca Solnit describes her formation as a writer and as a feminist in 1980s San Francisco, in an atmosphere of gender violence on the street and throughout society and the exclusion of women from cultural arenas. She tells of being poor, hopeful, and adrift in the city that became her great teacher, and of the small apartment that, when she was nineteen, became the home in which she transformed herself. She explores the forces that liberated her as a person and as a writer–books themselves; the gay community that presented a new model of what else gender, family, and joy could mean; and her eventual arrival in the spacious landscapes and overlooked conflicts of the American West.

Beyond being a memoir, Solnit’s book is also a passionate argument: that women are not just impacted by personal experience, but by membership in a society where violence against women pervades. Looking back, she describes how she came to recognize that her own experiences of harassment and menace were inseparable from the systemic problem of who has a voice, or rather who is heard and respected and who is silenced–and how she was galvanized to use her own voice for change.

For my money, as IMPORTANT a book as Maria Popova’s Figuring (which enlightened January and February for me), but for different reasons. Solnit’s seems to me like essential reading for men, for its clarity and forceful argument about how women have been and still are treated, seen (and not-seen), interpreted, condescended to and so on, a litany of patrifoolishness that is immediately recognizable and that one hopes one has never engaged in (but rather thinks one might have, witlessly…); for women, the messages are quite different and I’m hesitant to try to characterize them except to say that female readers will be punching the air and saying YESSSS! on pretty much every page. Solnit bloody NAILS it, but not via vituperation or anger or man-excluding rhetoric.

Wooden Wunderkammer

I’ve been plotting a presentation of wood photographs for a while now, thinking that there would be a Blurb book devoted to that subset of my work with Creatures. I decided to try a YouTube presentation instead, and Wooden Wunderkammer is the result of the moment:

I’m still exploring refinements of the Ken Burns thing, and haven’t really worked at precision of transitions with the soundtrack, so the above is, as they say, provisional.