Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Orford, was an 18th-century English man of letters and politics. He is remembered for Strawberry Hill, the home he built in London, and for the epigram, “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel”. In a letter dated 28 January 1754, Walpole coined the beautiful word “serendipity” after having read The Three Princes of Serendip, an English version of the Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo published by Michele Tramezzino in Venice in 1557. Serendip is the Persian and Urdu name for Sri Lanka, which was adopted from the Tamil Seren deevu or golden island.
When it comes to lovely words, “sauntering” is up there with serendipity. Henry David Thoreau, the American naturalist, philosopher and author of the classic Walden, gave it a special place in “Walking,” a famous essay that commended the virtues of immersing oneself actively in nature. Snippet:
“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived ‘from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre‘ — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, ‘There goes a sainte-terrer’, a saunterer — a holy-lander. They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean.
Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which indeed is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this holy land from the hands of the Infidels.”
Today, 1 February, Saint Brigid’s Day, is a good day for sauntering and serendipity.