TBT: When the Word ‘Serendipity’ Was Coined

Horace Walpole first wrote it in a letter to Horace Mann (no, not that one.)

horace mann walpole

An engraving of Horace Walpole and lithograph of Horace Mann, the Bostonian with the same name as Walpole’s pen pal. / Photos via Wikimedia Commons

Ser·en·dip·i·ty \ser-ən-ˈdi-pə-tē\
1 an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.
2 good fortune; luck


On January 28, 1754, a very important letter was sent to Horace Mann.

Not the Horace Mann who was born in Franklin, Massachusetts, and remembered as the father of public education, but Sir Horace Mann, the British diplomat to Florence in the 18th century. This aforementioned letter was sent by another HoraceHorace Walpole. Walpole was 4th Earl of Orford, as well as a historian, antiquarian, and prolific letter writer.

Walpole is said to have cultivated letter-writing as an art, corresponding with Sir Horace Mann for 45 years. He’s remembered for several magnificent works of writing, but one piece in particular (luckily) happened to influence the English language.

On the letter sent 262 years ago to a man with the same name as Boston’s education reformer, Walpole wrote the following:

“…this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.”

He continued, saying “serendipity” came from the title of 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…”

Oxford Dictionary notes that Serendip was an old name for Sri Lanka—apparently a place of happy and unexpected discoveries in the fairy tale that Walpole read. Thus, “serendipity” was coined.

Besides having the same name as the recipient of this serendipitous letter, New England-bred Horace Mann had one other thing in common with Earl Horace Walpole: the two were members of the Whig party, known in Britain and the States for being staunch conservatives who supported the monarchy. The word serendipity is only distantly, tangentially related to Boston, we suppose, but isn’t everything?