When we say that something is serendipitous, we mean that it’s a happy accident. Like finding some money you forgot about in a old coat. Or bumping into a friend somewhere you never normally go. Or, you know, discovering a copy of the Declaration of Independence hidden in the back of a $4 picture frame.
The word serendipity itself was coined by the English author and historian Horace Walpole, in a letter written to his friend (and distant cousin) Horace Mann on 28 January 1754. Mann had recently sent Walpole a much-prized portrait of Bianca Cappello, a sixteenth century Italian noblewomen who had married into the Medici dynasty, and while waiting for the picture to arrive Walpole had stumbled across the Cappello coat of arms in an old book. “This discovery, indeed,” he wrote, “is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.”
But Walpole hadn’t just made the word up from thin air. Instead, he had taken it from “a silly fairy tale” he knew of entitled The Three Princes of Serendip, whose title characters, he explained, “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.”
But neither had the fourteenth century writers of Walpole’s “silly fairy tale” invented the name Serendip. In fact, it’s an old name for Sri Lanka, and probably comes from some ancient Sanskrit word meaning “dwelling-place of lions” (although there are several rival explanations).
But if serendipity is a happy accident, what then can you call an unhappy accident? Like finding a spider in your old coat pocket. Or bumping into a boring workmate somewhere you never normally go. Or, you know, getting hit by a meteorite while you’re casually napping on the couch.
For that, we turn to the English writer William Boyd, who coined the fantastic antonym zemblanity in his 2001 novel Armadillo. Describing the practice of “making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries,” Boyd took the word zemblanity from the name of Novaya Zemlya, a bleak and barren Arctic archipelago in the far north of Russia that was once used as a Soviet nuclear testing site—in other words, about as far removed from a tropical island as it’s possible to be...