Tag Archives: serendipity


The island is a jewel, and full of delight and discoveries. It was formerly thinly attached to the mainland, but a storm severed that.

We left home late in the day and just made it onto the ferry. The forecast had been for rain and lightning, but, as so often this year, it faded away when squinted at. As we passed a freighter on the nod on the surface of the bay and debarked onto the island, we heard wind, but when we got to the beach it was calm and warm and lovely, and there was almost no one there, like a private resort. We sat looking out at the timeless lake, mind on eternity.

And after our time relaxing on the sand and in the water, we went to the little café spread out across the grass and found – like a mirage come to life – live music and people dancing. It was the first time in nearly two years that there had been live music there, and the next time would be another week and a half. We had just wonderfully chanced on it. And it was calypso… including, at times, Aina’s favourite musical instrument to listen to: an accordion.

Aina had been wishing for moussaka for some time, and lo, it was the daily special. She ordered it. And we learned that the draft taps had been taken over for the week by a favourite local brewery, so we ordered a flight of seven. The server dropped them off at the table without a legend or so much as even one word of description. Here: discover. A perfect cap on an evening of serendipity, like some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me.

Serendipity: delightful discovery, or the faculty of making such. Coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole on the basis of the story “The Three Princes of Serendip” (an English version of “Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo” by Michele Tramezzino, of Venice in 1557). As Walpole wrote, the heroes of the story “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” The story is said to have been based on an old Persian fairy tale, and a key part of it – ignored by Walpole – gave an important contribution to the detective story genre. But I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself.

And where is Serendip? It’s an island in the Indian Ocean. You may have heard of it by other names. Serendip is from Persian Sarandip,* from from Pali Sīhaḷadīpa, from Sanskrit Siṃhaladvīpa, from dvīpa ‘island’ and Siṃhala, which refers to the people of the island – a word that has come to us in English as Sinhala, the name we give to the language of that people. The word Siṃhala passed through several European languages (notably Portuguese, which is the Zelig of etymology throughout the South and East Asian seaboard, showing up again and again where you didn’t expect it) and arrived in English as Ceylon, our old name for the island we now call by the unrelated (though remarkably related-sounding) name Sri Lanka, which means, more or less, ‘holy island’.

OK, but where did Siṃhala come from? I know you were wondering; so was I. The -la part is a suffix; the root is siṃha, which means ‘lion’. The island got the name because, evidently, it was a place where the lions were, in case Bruce Cockburn was wondering at the time. And in its turn, siṃha is related to a large number of other words for ‘lion’, including Punjabi siṅgh, seen very commonly in Sikh names. The Swahili word for ‘lion’, simba, is strikingly similar, but there is nothing I can find to indicate an etymological connection – just a happy coincidence.

Anyway, I’ve heard that Sri Lanka is nice, full of delight and discoveries, but I’ve yet to visit it. An interesting fact is that although it’s off the southeast coast of India, it was for a long time attached by a thin land bridge to the Indian mainland, finally entirely severed by a storm.

And the same is true for Toronto Island, just across the harbour from downtown Toronto: until waves coming through in a storm a century and a half ago, it was a peninsula attached by a sandbar. Many things have changed since then; the island has only gotten more lovely… and serendipitous.

Some kinda ecstasy got a hold on me…

*Neither Persian nor Pali nor Sanskrit has a capital–lower case distinction, but I’ve capitalized the word in each transliteration just to indicate it’s a proper noun.

Words we love irrationally much

This article was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

I asked people on Twitter about words they love irrationally much. I got quite a few responses. Actually, I got so many that when I tried to retweet them all, Twitter finally told me I had reached my daily tweet limit. And did again the next day.

The words that people love irrationally much are many and varied. But a few words came up again and again, and it’s interesting to see what they have in common. Continue reading


A real find of a word. It presents an interesting mixture of bits – a new discovery at every turn: is it serene? dippy? is there pity? if you are in a sere place, will it rend you – or render you to a dip to end it? The word brings pleasant resonances to those who know it, and its sound delivers nice contrast: a smooth trochee followed by a bopping dactyl. It starts with a snakey s, but it won’t bite; the pair of eyes you see are heavy-lidded e‘s, like those of a relaxed dreamer (as the lid of r droops to n). But then a d pops up, and in the twinkling of an i it has flipped over to p. And after you’ve seen ity? Well, why not? And where was this word found? Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, once known in Persian as Serendip… but as seen through a spyglass from England: in the 18th century, Horace Walpole coined the word on the basis of the story of the three princes of Serendip, who were ever discovering happy wondrous things unsought and unexpected… perhaps they, too, were word tasters.