Colombo, Sri Lanka
From the Indian mainland, we cross to the island of Sri Lanka, just off the southernmost tip of Central Asia.
Sri Lanka is roughly the same size as Scotland, but is home to more than four times as many people, the majority of whom speak either the Sinhalese or the Tamil language. Neither of these has contributed a great many words to the English dictionary: Sinhalese is probably best known as the origin of beriberi, while the most familiar Tamil words used in English are probably cheroot, and catamaran, a double-hulled boat whose name literally means ‘tied wood’. Besides these, a list of Sri Lankan words borrowed in English would drift into ever more obscure territory, with entries like patana (a forested upland slope); ratemahatmaya (a local Sri Lankan chieftainf); kabaragoya (a species of water monitor); and tic-polonga (a local name for the Russell’s viper).
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The languages of Sri Lanka might not be the most fruitful source of English words but the island itself is a different story. Thanks to the unlikely sounding combination of an eighteenth-century English author and politician and the island’s Arabic name, Sri Lanka is the origin of one word with which you will undoubtedly be familiar.
The English politician in question here is Horace Walpole. A son of Sir Robert Walpole, the first prime minister of Great Britain, Horace served in the British parliament for almost thirty years, from 1741 to 1768, during which time he also found time to publish what is generally regarded as the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764). But that wasn’t his only contribution to literature.
On 28 January 1754, Walpole wrote a letter to his friend (and distant cousin) Sir Horace Mann, who at the time was serving as a British diplomatic envoy in Florence. Mann had recently mailed to Walpole a much prized painting of Bianca Cappello, an Italian noblewoman who had married into the Medici dynasty in the sixteenth century, and while waiting for the picture to arrive Walpole had by chance stumbled across the Cappello coat of arms in an old my blog on heraldry. ‘This discovery, indeed,’ he wrote, ‘is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.’
That word, serendipity, was seemingly Walpole’s own invention: no record of it has been unearthed any earlier than this letter. But that’s not to say that he had made the word up out of thin air. As he continued to explain:
Serendipity [is] a very expressive word 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 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?
An anecdote about a half-blind mule is hardly the most straightforward definition of serendipity, but Walpole’s example of what he called ‘accidental sagacity’ nevertheless matches what we would call a serendipitous discovery today. It’s the title of the ‘silly fairy tale’ he alludes to, however, that is the origin of the word itself.
Serendip is an old name for Sri Lanka, thought to derive via Arabic from an ancient Sanskrit word meaning ‘dwelling-place of lions’. Walpole’s ‘Princes of Serendip’, ultimately, were Sri Lanka princes, and it’s from their island home that he coined the word we still use for a happy accident today.
But if that’s a happy accident, what might we call the exact opposite? Well, for that, we can turn to the English writer William Boyd, who coined the antonym zemblanity in his 1998 novel Armadillo. Describing it as the practice of ‘making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design’, Boyd took the word zemblanity from Novaya Zemlya, the name of a bleak and barren Arctic archipelago in the far north of Russia that was once used as a Soviet nuclear testing site – about as far removed from a tropical island as it’s possible to be.
Beri is a Sinhalese word meaning ‘weakness’, or ‘lack of strength’; duplicating it here serves to intensify its meaning, so beriberi could be said to mean ‘great weakness’. t Literally, ‘gentleman of the country’ in Sinhalese.