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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) the opposite of serendipity—namely, unpleasant events occurring by design

nasa satellite image of Novaya Zemlya in siberia northern russia arctic

Facts about words whose opposites aren’t particularly well known always prove popular on HH. In the past we’ve talked about everything from dysphemisms rather than euphemisms, preponing rather than postponing, and Lima Syndrome, the Peruvian opposite of Stockholm Syndrome. And this week, we added zemblanity to the list: the little known and seldom used opposite of serendipity:

As some of you clever, clever people pointed out on Twitter, zemblanity was coined by William Boyd in his 1998 novel Armadillo. In his words, zemblanity is “the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design”. Together with serendipity, Boyd explains, it forms “the twin poles of the axis around which we revolve.”

Etymologically, serendipity takes its name from Serendip, an old name for the island of Sri Lanka, and was inspired by an ancient fairytale called The Princes of Serendip. Boyd’s zemblanity, meanwhile, is inspired by a geographical—and, in fact, a literal polar—opposite: Novaya Zemlya is a vast, isolated archipelago of islands in the high Russian Arctic.

And compared to the lush, tropical island of Sri Lanka, which lies just north of the Equator in central Asia, it’s easy to see how the bleak Siberian wilderness should inspire a word for the direct opposite of serendipity.


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