OPINION: Sri Lanka has given us serendipity

Many, many months ago, I wrote about words that entered the language from literature and mythology. I have found a new cache of them, as if by serendipity, and so here we are again.


Horace Walpole, an 18th-century British writer, brought us serendipity. Serendip was the old name for Sri Lanka, a country in the Indian Ocean. Walpole said he created the word after reading a 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."

(Note that we Americans spell traveled with only one l.)

And thus the definition in Merriam-Webster: the phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.

I experience the best serendipity in used bookstores. Though I suppose if I walk into a bookstore again, finding something cool wouldn't be serendipity because that's why I walked in. Darn.


The 16th-century French writer Francois Rabelais gave us the word gargantuan, meaning enormous or giant.

The Washington Post reports that, in May, a hailstone more than 6 inches across fell in Hondo, Texas. The Post quoted Matt Kumjian, an atmospheric sciences professor at Pennsylvania State University who specializes in the study of giant hail. (!) He called the hail gargantuan.

Rabelais wrote five novels in the series "The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel." Gargantua was an extra-large king. Merriam-Webster editors explain:

"All of the details of Gargantua's life befit a giant. He rides a colossal mare whose tail switches so violently that it fells the entire forest of Orleans. He has an enormous appetite — in one memorable incident, he inadvertently swallows five pilgrims while eating a salad. The scale of everything connected with Gargantua gave rise to the adjective 'gargantuan,' which since Shakespeare's time has been used for anything of tremendous size or volume."

Gargantua has a son named Pantagruel, who is no less huge. One site notes the narrator finds himself in Pantagruel's mouth and discovers a civilization among his teeth.

(No word on the decay of that civilization.)

I can't say I've heard the adjective pantagruelian. It sounds a little like what Oliver Twist wanted some more of. But Oxford says pantagruelian also means enormous.

Like father, like son.


This one surprised me a lot. I think of a pamphlet as something my orthopedist might give me with information on a new kind of joint medicine, or instructions for a new step machine, or details on a new condo complex. I had never thought much about the word. The definition is just "an unbound booklet." Other synonyms from Merriam-Webster are brochure, circular, flyer, leaflet.

And here's the unexpected part. The word came from a 12th-century Latin love poem, "Pamphius seu De Amore," which translates to "On Love." The popular poem was widely copied in the Middle Ages, the Online Etymology Dictionary people say.

And you can find a copy next time you visit the Medieval Manuscripts department in the Oxford Libraries.


Admittedly, I don't often talk about syphilis. The infectious disease spread across Europe in the late 15th century. It was called all sorts of names, depending on which country you might dislike. France-haters call it the French disease. Italy-haters called it the Neapolitan disease, and Spain-haters called it the Spanish disease.

Then a gentleman from Verona wrote a poem blaming France. (Verona wasn't then a part of Italy, though it is now.) He was an interesting man. Here's how a University of Pittsburgh site described him:

"Girolamo Fracastoro (1478-1553) was a Venetian nobleman educated at Padua University. Although medicine was his true passion, he was also a poet, humanist, and scientist. ...

"As a physician, Fracastoro is considered one of the founding fathers of modern medicine. He discovered that microorganisms were able to transmit infection and proposed a scientific hypothesis on tiny particles or 'spores' 300 years before the empirical formulation of germ theory was developed by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch.

His Latin poem was called "Syphilis, or The French Disease."

The American Heritage Dictionary offers an interesting summary of how syphilis got its name from the poem:

"Part of the work was about a shepherd, Syphilus, who had seen his flock suffering from heat and thirst and cursed the sun god Apollo. The god then afflicted Syphilus with sores, and the scourge spread from him throughout the land. The people of the shepherd's country began to call the disease syphilis, a word formed in Latin from the shepherd's name Syphilus. Eventually, it was decided that the only way to end the plague was to sacrifice Syphilus to Apollo, but Juno interceded, had Syphilus spared, and gave the people a cure, the guaiacum tree."

Alas, Fracastoro later learned that the guaiacum tree could not cure syphilis. But he continued to call the disease syphilis.


The creator of this word has been in the news lately. Children's writer Dr. Seuss, or Theodor Seuss Geisel, is credited with first using the word nerd in the 1950 book "If I Ran the Zoo."

It's bunched with several real and nonsense words as the main character ponders how to fill his zoo: "I'll sail to Ka-Troo and bring back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo/ A Nerkle, a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!"

The nerd pictured in the book looks like a grumpy, hairier and yellower version of Sam-I-Am of "Green Eggs and Ham" fame.

Merriam-Webster defines today's main usages of nerd:

"It's a person devoted to intellectual, academic, or technical pursuits or interests," or it's "an unstylish or socially awkward person."

I think whether the word is an insult or a compliment depends on how wealthy the person is.

But to get back to Seuss, this year the company that legally controls his books decided to stop publishing a few of them. The Washington Post explained that the company would stop publishing "If I Ran the Zoo" and five other books because of racist imagery.

This was the reasoning of the Seuss people: "These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong. Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises' catalog represents and supports all communities and families."

After this news, some people were infuriated, while others were fine with it.

Sources include Interesting Literature, Britannica, Merriam-Webster, The Washington Post, SuperSummary, Online Etymology Dictionary, American Heritage Dictionary, Lexico. Reach Bernadette at

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