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55146.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 7:53 am Reply with quote

Serendippity Doo-dah

Serendipity is the process of discovering things by a combination of accident and sagacity. What follows is information discovered serendipitously whilst researching serendipity.

'Serendipity' emerged from a June 2004 survey of 1,000 linguists as one of the 10 hardest English words to translate, the others being:


The issue is over translating the full implication of a word, including connotations and overtones. There was also an international list, which included:

Shlimazl (Yiddish for 'a chronically unlucky person')
Klloshar (Albanian for 'loser')
Pochemuchka (Russian for a child who's constantly asking questions - a useful word to have, it seems to me) (pron: potchy-mooshka).

An example of a concept that's easy to express in some languages but not English is this question: "Of the twelve episodes in this series of QI, is this the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc?" because we lack a descriptor for ordinal numbers ("Whichth show is this?"). In German, for example, the word is wievelte.

55147.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 7:54 am Reply with quote

The word 'serendipity' was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754:

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 which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand serendipity? One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for, comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon's, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table.

(Letter to Horace Mann)

Serendip was the Arabic name for Sri Lanka.

55149.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 7:56 am Reply with quote

Some well-known examples of serendipitous discovery:

Gelignite, by Alfred Nobel

Penicillin, by Alexander Fleming (pace Ernest Duchesne, Clodomiro Twight, and generations of Bedouins) (Fleming noticed a halo of inhibition of bacterial growth around a contaminant blue-green mould on a Staphylococcus plate culture and concluded that the mould was releasing a substance that was inhibiting bacterial growth).

Post-It Notes, by Spencer Silver and Arthur Fry. (The original adhesive used in Post-it notes was invented in 1968 by Spencer Silver, a 3M researcher. While attempting to design a strong adhesive, he instead developed an adhesive that was very weak. No immediate application was apparent, until 1974 when a colleague, Arthur Fry, conceived of using the adhesive to create bookmarks while contemplating a hymnal in his church choir. Initial prototypes were available in 1977).

The rings of Uranus (discovered through observations made from the Kuiper Airborne Observatory because they occulted (blocked from view) a star as Uranus passed between the Earth and the star).

The Americas, by Columbus (he was looking for Asia).

55150.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 7:56 am Reply with quote

Any more?

55160.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 8:26 am Reply with quote

Viagra by a team at Pfizer's in Sandwich. The compound they had developed was supposed to be for the treatment of angina. In the early clinical trials, the patients reported that it did nothing for their angina, but there was something else that it did do ...

55161.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 8:27 am Reply with quote

Wasn't Teflon discovered by accident?



55167.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 8:34 am Reply with quote

There must be loads in the field of astronomy.

At the moment, the only one that springs to mind is Jocelyn Bell Burnell (one of the nicest astronomers I've ever workd with) who was looking for quasars while researching for her PhD and discovered Pulsars:

Oh, and of course Penzias and Wilson discovered an annoying background noise in their radio astronomy observations that just happened to turn out to be the Cosmic Microwave Background.

55183.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 9:04 am Reply with quote

I deal a lot with translators and they all agree that the most difficult idea to translate (although I doubt it happens that often) is the Icelandic phrase 'setja upp gestaspjot'.

It literally means to 'put up a guest spear' but the actual meaning couldn't be further from it.

In Iceland the phrase 'setja upp gestaspjot' desribes the position that a cat gets into when it's licking the insides of it's back legs (or its genitals), where it's curled up in an almost circle with one of its legs up in the air.

If you've got cats, I'm sure you know what I mean but imagine trying to translate it.

55189.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 9:19 am Reply with quote

LOL....I know what Fero is talking about, and I don't know how it would be described, aside from "You know when a cat is cleaning its tummy, and it has one leg in the air....."



55222.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 10:19 am Reply with quote

So is it used to describe anything other than cats? EG, might you describe a human as being in this position?

55224.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 10:23 am Reply with quote

Tas wrote:
Wasn't Teflon discovered by accident?

Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene) was, apparently, a serendipitous discovery, but not as a by-product of the space programme - that bit (not that you mentioned it) is a miff. It was patented in 1941 and on the market in 1946.

55227.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 10:26 am Reply with quote

I think humans that can lick their own genitals are rare


55236.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 10:42 am Reply with quote

As far as I know, it's specifically cats.

Possibly for the reason that Samivel mentioned :-D

55241.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 10:51 am Reply with quote

Thanks for that observation Samivel.....I shudder to think how many may try...!




55271.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 12:30 pm Reply with quote

samivel wrote:
I think humans that can lick their own genitals are rare


Well I don't like to brag......

....but I can lick my own elbow.


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