Still playing with your fidget spinner? Keep up! The newest craze is painting rocks and leaving them around town. Yes, really. It's not litter because it's art.
My county, Norfolk, is, as usual, right on trend. The Norfolk Rocks (UK) Facebook group has gathered more than 34,000 members in just a couple of months, and the feed is full of photos of happy children, and almost as many happy adults, brandishing their painted treasures. Whether decorated with toddlers' scribbles or full-blown works of art, you'll find the stones in parks, in shops and on sea walls, ready for the lucky finder to admire, keep or rehide (a word that's too new for spellcheck to recognise).
It's got me thinking about beauty and art and shared experiences and how much fun it is to paint a stone despite having no artistic skill whatsoever.
And it's also made me reconsider 'serendipity', that delightful word that perfectly summarises the joyful happenstance (another delightful word) of discovering a pretty stone in the street.
The OED Online defines serendipity as 'the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way'. Merriam Webster's definition is even more appropriate: 'the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for'. It goes on to describe the rather, well, serendipitous story of its origins as both a word and a concept. In January 1754, serial letter writer and linguistic inventor Horace Walpole described the discovery of an interesting fact as:
'... almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word… I once read a silly fairy tale, called “The Three Princes of Serendip” [Sri Lanka]: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of...'
It's rather handy for dictionary compilers that Walpole not only appears to have created a new word but also took the trouble to claim the credit for it.
As a (serendipitous) aside, Merriam Webster lists other words that were first recorded in 1754, including avocado pear, consensual, disgusting, extravaganza, face mask, polymorphous, postbox, prima donna, self-importance, unsportsmanlike and washing machine. One wonders how they communicated in 1753.
However, 'serendipity' wasn't really used beyond literary discussions and statistical research until the 1950s, when a sociologist called Robert K. Merton saw it in a dictionary and decided that it supported his theory of the impact of unintended consequences of intended actions. Fascinated with the concept, he and a historian, Elinor Barber, published a book that delved into the semantic history and complex meanings of serendipity (The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science, in case you're wondering). Richard Boyle, in a fascinating review of the book, describes how it subsequently caught on to the extent that it became the tenth most common boat name in the US and in 2000 was voted the most popular word in the English language. (It's not my favourite word, by the way. I prefer 'actually', which is less poetic but just as interesting for being simultaneously useful and pointless. But that's a whole other blog post.)
It's often claimed to be untranslatable but actually (yes, I know) only in the sense that other languages have adapted it to their tongues. Wikipedia lists versions in Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish. Happy discoveries can apparently be made anywhere.
Boyle's review complains that the concept of serendipity is now overused and misused: these days, he says, 'it is taken to mean little more than a Disney-like expression of pleasure, good feeling, joy, or happiness'. Dumbed down it might be, but I still think it has particular connotations that make it an evocative name for everything from AirBnBs in Texas to 'global consultancy services' companies. And, of course, it's the perfect word for the pleasure of finding a little piece of art in an unexpected place.
Apologies in advance if you're going to spend the next few days staring at the ground. Happy hunting!
PS: This post was going to be called '5 reasons why editing rocks', until I serendipitously became distracted by the concept of serendipity. I only mention it now because editing does rock.
My book review blog: Ju's Reviews