This is a wonderful celebration by James Somers, of how stimulating a Dictionary can be. It takes as a starting point some of the writing advice of John McPhee, but also reminds me of the fact that aimlessly leafing through encyclopaedias and dictionaries is a surprisingly good way to find things out, and also perhaps as a way to directly catalyse a new idea or a new line of enquiry.
The brilliant American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) was casually flicking through a volume of the Oxford English Dictionary in the early 1940’s when he stumbled upon the word serendipity. This word had been coined in 1754, when the English gentleman Horace Walpole (1717 - 1797), wrote the following in a letter to his friend Horace Mann;
This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: 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 they were not in quest of...
Walpole describes serendipity as accidental sagacity, and points out that ‘... you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description’. Robert Merton’s discovery of the word serendipity led him to write a deeply insightful book on the role that serendipity plays in scientific discovery, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. Modern familiarity with the concept can probably be traced back to Merton’s (serendipitous) re-discovery of the word in the 1940s.