Wednesday Jan. 28, 2015

Listen
Play
Pause
0:00

Travellers

In trains we need not choose our company
For all the logic of departure is
That recognition is suspended; we
Are islanded in unawareness, as
Our minds reach out to where we want to be.

But carried thus impersonally on,
We hardly see that person opposite
Who, if we only knew it, might be one
Who, far more than the other waiting at
Some distant place, knows our true destination.

"Travellers" by Philip Larkin from The Complete Poems. © Faber & Faber, 2012. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1754 that the word "serendipity" was first coined. It's defined by Merriam-Webster as "the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for." It was recently listed by a U.K. translation company as one of the English language's 10 most difficult words to translate. Other words to make their list include plenipotentiary, gobbledegook, poppycock, whimsy, spam, and kitsch.

"Serendipity" was first used by parliament member and writer Horace Walpole in a letter that he wrote to an English friend who was spending time in Italy. In the letter to his friend written on this day in 1754, Walpole wrote that he came up with the word after a fairy tale he once read, called "The Three Princes of Serendip," explaining, "as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of." The three princes of Serendip hail from modern-day Sri Lanka. "Serendip" is the Persian word for the island nation off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka.

The invention of many wonderful things have been attributed to "serendipity," including Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Charles Goodyear's vulcanization of rubber, inkjet printers, Silly Putty, the Slinky, and chocolate chip cookies.

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin after he left for vacation without disinfecting some of his petri dishes filled with bacteria cultures; when he got back to his lab, he found that the penicillium mold had killed the bacteria.

Viagra had been developed to treat hypertension and angina pectoris; it didn't do such a good job at these things, researchers found during the first phase of clinical trials, but it was good for something else.

The principles of radioactivity, X-rays, and infrared radiation were all found when researchers were looking for something else.

Julius Comroe said, "Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer's daughter."

Wiktionary lists serendipity's antonyms as "Murphy's law" and "perfect storm."

It's the birthday of the novelist Colette (books by this author), born in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in the Burgundy region of France (1873). She is best known as the author of Chéri (1920) and Gigi (1945).

She said, "The lovesick, the betrayed, and the jealous all smell alike." And, "What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner."

It's the birthday of José Martí (books by this author), born in Havana, Cuba (1853). He was a poet and journalist, and he helped lead Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain. Pete Seeger's folk song "Guantanamera" is a translation of an autobiographical poem by José Martí.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

Production Credits

Host: Garrison Keillor
Technical Director: Thomas Scheuzger
Engineer: Noah Smith
Producer: Joy Biles
Permissions: Kathy Roach
Web Producer: Ben Miller