n., pl., -ties.

  1. The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.
  2. The fact or occurrence of such discoveries.
  3. An instance of making such a discovery.

[From the characters in the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, who made such discoveries, from Persian Sarandīp, Sri Lanka, from Arabic sarandīb.]

serendipitous ser’en·dip’i·tous adj.
serendipitously ser’en·dip’i·tous·ly adv.

WORD HISTORY   We are indebted to the English author Horace Walpole for the word serendipity, which he coined in one of the 3,000 or more letters on which his literary reputation primarily rests. In a letter of January 28, 1754, Walpole says that “this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.” Walpole formed the word on an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. He explained that this name was part of the title of “a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of”

I’ve loved that word ever since I first discovered it. I love the sound of it, and I love the idea behind its meaning.

On Wednesday, I experienced it.

I was all set at work for the first meeting of a new book group for teenagers that we’ve been trying to set up.

I’d canvassed 13 to 16 year old customers for months, and had about a dozen express interest to varying degrees. The group was to be 6 – 8 members, so I was fairly confident of a viable take-up. One of the Chatterbooks group that has been running since before I started at the library was keen to join since he was too old to remain in the original group. I saw his dad on Tuesday and he told me how much he was looking forward to it.

I’d ordered in copies of Slated by Teri Terry as the first title to be read and discussed next time.

I’d printed out membership forms, and ‘get to know you’ questionnaires, and a register pro-forma with spaces to put in the item number of each book issued against the name of the member borrowing it.

My boss had even bought a pack of fairy cakes as a welcome.

So at 4.40pm, five minutes before the session was due to start, I went over to the children’s section with the books and papers and cakes, and some pens, to set up.

At 4.45pm nobody had arrived yet. My colleague said the ex-Chatterbooks boy’s dad had just phoned to say he’d come home from school with a sore throat and a temperature, so he wouldn’t make it.

While I was waiting for the rest to arrive, I decided to do some shelf tidying in the area. I’m never one to stand around idle.

I looked at the spinner of ‘red spots’ – books for children who have just become independent readers. This spinner contains Daisy Meadows’ Magic Rainbow Fairy books; Noddy; Dirty Bertie; Horrid Henry; Tiara Club; Magic Puppy, Kitten, Bunny etc.; Gargoyles and others on labelled shelves.


One glance told me that some kids had been in messing around. Most of the books were back-to-front so that their spines were hidden and, once turned around, were almost exclusively on the wrong shelves. There were Dr Who and Scream Street titles from the Junior section which had no business on that spinner at all.

I set to, trying to organize them. I was nearly done – since the teenagers were all no-shows – when I spotted one of the Daisy Meadows titles that looked as if it had a loose page. I took it aside to see if it could be repaired or would need to be withdrawn from stock.

When I opened it, I discovered that it wasn’t a loose leaf at all. It was a piece of the paper that we leave out for drawing, which had been inserted into the book folded in half. I opened it expecting to see a picture of a fairy.

What I saw shocked and sickened me.

Someone had written in felt pen in large letters: “Your Mum is dead. Go home and see. Some N***a killed her.” [The word was written in full, but I won’t repeat it here.]

It was most likely done by a pupil from the local Upper School. We’ve had problems with them leaving obscene messages on our answer machine etc. before. Hitherto, only the staff have been targeted by their ‘pranks’. The school has been notified and a teacher will be coming to see if they can recognize the handwriting.

I can only thank God that nobody actually turned up for the teenage book group (as disappointing as that was), giving me time to tidy the spinner and discover its awful secret before a member of the public, most likely a little girl around 5-8 years old, found it and read it. I shudder to think of the distress it may have caused.

Serendipitous indeed.




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