There’s a Word for That: Zemblanity

alex atkins bookshelf wordsNo doubt, you’ve heard of the word, “serendipity.” It’s a wonderful word — both in sound and meaning. The word means “finding something valuable or interesting by chance” or “a fortunate or unexpected discovery by accident.” The word was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 in a letter to his friend Horace Mann. In the letter, Walpole references the characters from a Persian fairy tale titled “The Three Princes of Serendip”: “[The princes were] always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” Richard Boyle, a Sri Lankan English consultant of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), argues that the definition of serendipity as “simple accidental discovery” is a watered-down definition of the word. Boyle writes: “Even the OED definition, ‘the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident,’ does not meet Walpole’s prescription of a gift for discovery by accident and sagacity [good judgment] while in pursuit of something else. These ingredients are cumulative and all should be mentioned in the ideal dictionary definition.” [emphasis added]

Zemblanity, on the other hand, is the antonym of serendipity. The definition of zemblanity is making unhappy, unlucky and unexpected discoveries by intent rather than by chance. The word was coined by William Boyd in his novel Armadillo published in 1998. The word is derived from Nova Zembla (meaning “new land”), a frigid, barren land; specifically an archipelago of islands once used for nuclear testing by the Russians. Incidentally, the word is pronounced “zem BLA ni tee.” Here is Boyd’s introduction of the word: “So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design. Serendipity and zemblanity: the twin poles of the axis around which we revolve.”

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