Horace to Horace: Serendipity.

Letter published by Yale University Press.

On January 28, 1754, Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Orford and a voracious letter writer, wrote a letter to Horace Mann, in which he coined the word serendipity. Horace Mann (1706 – 1786) was a British diplomat who lived in Florence and kept an open house for the English gentry that traveled to Florence. Walpole met Mann in 1739 during one on his trips to Florence, and the two started a correspondence which lasted over 40 years. It was in one of these letters that Walpole coined the word.

The letter itself not only explains why he used the word, but why he thought it was a most appropriate word to be used. Walpole had made a discovery of a connection between two old European families by finding a link between their coats of arms. Walpole continues in his letter:

“This discovery I made by a talisman, which Mr. Chute calls the Sortes Walpoliance, by which I find everything I want, a pointe nommee, whenever 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 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 the 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? One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity, (for you must observe than 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 treater her at table…”

Horace Walple letter to Horace Mann, January 28, 1754
Horace Walpole’s Gothic Style Strawberry Hill House

Along with coining serendipity, Horace Walpole was an author, a politician, and is known for reviving the Gothic style of both writing (The Castle of Otranto, 1764) and architecture (in his home Strawberry Hill near London). Yale University Press published all his letters in 48 volumes.

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