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.

Serendipity – From Persian Poets to the Earl

From 420 – 438 CE, there ruled a Sasanian king by the name of Bahram Gor (406 – 438 CE) in Persia. He was a benevolent ruler whose reign was mostly peaceful. He is however mostly remembered for being the favorite protagonist of Persian poets.

Emperor Bahram Gor – a favorite of poets

The first poet to write about Bahram was Ferdowsi (940 – 1020), who made him the central figure in Ferdowsi’s epic masterpiece Shahnameh (Book of Kings) written between 977 and 101 CE.

Then in 1197, Bahram was the main protagonist in Nizami Ganjavi’s (1141 – 1209) romantic poem Haft Paykar (Seven Beauties), which was based on the Shahnameh. This was followed in 1302 by the poem Hasht-Bihisht (Eight Paradises) which was written by Amir Khosrow (1253 – 1325), and was based on Haft Paykar. Hasht-Bihisht is also framed around folktales and legends of Bahram Gor. However, in this poem Khosrow added the story of the Three Princes of Serendip.

The Italian Translation

An Armenian, known as M. Christoforo Armeno, who was born in Tabriz, Iran in the 16th Century, and was fluent in both Persian and Italian translated the story of the Three Princes of Serendip from Khusrow’s Hasht-Bihisht into Italian. He told the story verbally to a Venetian printer named Tramezzino  who published the story in a small volume of Oriental Tales under the name of Peregrinnagio di tre figluoli del re di Serendippo in 1557.

With this translation, the legends and folklore associated with Bahram Gor finally entered Europe, gained a great deal of popularity, and were translated into German and French. Chevalier de Mailly’s French translation was further translated into English in 1722, and published under the title, The Travels and Adventures of Three Princes of Serendip.

Henry Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford

It was this translation that Henry Walpole (1717–97), son of British Prime Minister Robert Walpole and the 4th Earl of Orford read as a child and remembered long after as an adult when he coined the word “serendipity’ in a letter he wrote to his friend Horace Mann on January 28, 1754.

Percontation Point

Earlier this week I learned about another wonderful punctuation mark that seems to have fallen out of use – or I should say never really caught on – Percontation point or the Rhetorical Question mark. It might be used most appropriately in – are you crazy – where clearly the speaker is not expecting a response.

The backward question mark.

In the late 16th century, English printer Henry Denham was concerned that the unsavvy readers of English may not catch on to the fact that the question did not require a response and proposed the use of a backward question mark to indicate a rhetorical question. It didn’t really catch on and it fell out of use completely by the 17th century.

I can see it being quite useful on Twitter where one often doesn’t know whether a response is required or not. It also has found use in art work and tshirts.

Magritte, Kierkegaard, & de Saussure

If you name me, you negate me. By giving me a name, a label, you negate all the other things I could possibly be.” Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855).

Rene Magritte (1898–1967) was a Belgian surrealist artist who is known for challenging the viewers’ preconditioned perceptions of reality.One could wax and wane endlessly about the philosophical underpinnings of his pipe painting, Treachery of Images (1929). Or the way I understand it – Magritte was saying two things here – this is not a pipe since you can’t really stuff some tobacco into it and smoke it as you would a pipe. The second is that it’s not a pipe because it’s an image of a pipe. And really the word pipe can be changed at any time to say for instance pig – in which case – this would still no longer be a pipe. So the word and the image are simply representations of the real thing, and not the real thing.

The Interpretation of Dreams 1935

Words and images are human representations of the real live tangible thing which we can touch and experience. They have names because we gave them these names – there is always a disconnect between the real thing and the way we see and name something – perhaps that’s why the images are also painted through a window.

Key to Dreams 1927 …the sky, the bird, the table, the sponge

The paintings are depictions of the challenges put forth by the influential Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) who clearly saw that the relationship between a thing and its name are totally arbitrary. The word gets its meaning from existing within a context of the system of naming that exists and has existed for centuries. Magritte challenged this same arbitrary relation in these paintings.

The Key To Dreams, 1930 …. the acacia flower, the moon, the snow, the roof, the storm, the desert

So Magritte, Kierkegaard, & de Saussure come together to help us understand and challenege, and find new ways of looking at old things.


Now this is an interesting word.  I was wondering about its origin because it clearly does not sound like an English word. Like many other untranslatable words this one is also German – bildung literally means education and learning, and roman means a novel – and the word has come to mean a novel that focuses on the growth of the protagonist or simply a coming-of-age book.

The word was coined by German philologist Johann Karl Simon Morgenstern (1770 – 1852) in the 1820s during the period of German Enlightenment. He first used the word when he was lecturing students at the University of Dorpat on the self-actualization that individuals realize as they navigate the journey from childhood to young adulthood. The book he may have been lecturing on was Johann Volfgang von Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), which now is considered the first novel of theis genre.

The first Bildungsroman: Goethe’s 1795 Novel

During the period of Enlightenment, the centuries old feudal system ended, and there was a burgeoning middle-class.  Artists and authors moved away from religious and aristocratic patronage and gravitated towards this middle class. This was a different, revolutionary era – individuals looked to themselves for their salvation, and personal journeys became of great importance. As a result, authors started writing narratives about personal, mainly spiritual, growth which eventually we now know as Bildungsroman.

When most of us think of American Bildungsroman literature, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Adventures of Tom Sawyer immediately come to mind. Another example is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

Within the genre, there are subgenres –Erziehungsroman is the academic growth of the protagonist, Kunstlerroman is the realization of an artist’s potential, and Zeitroman is one in which the both the era and the protagonist develop together.  So there we have it – an in-depth look at a literary term we have all used when writing papers on Huck Finn!!